For One Day: Short Story

600px-Ferris_Wheel_at_night.jpg

Ferris Wheel at night by Tiago Fioreze on Wikimedia Commons

Story copyright by Jonathan Scott Griffin

The smell of sour pickles, stale cotton candy, and hot dogs sizzling over a grill freely intermingle under the rainbow of neon lights. I should find this all enchanting. Instead, I find it’s giving me a headache. It’s also too loud. The sounds of the carnival games with balls slamming against glass and of crying children are giving me a migraine.

It all feels hopeless. Happiness can’t pass through the thick wall of depression that has been gradually built around me by society. Sure. Blame me if you must. It’s what everyone does. Never mind that I blame myself for my business failures, or that I blame myself for the recent divorce of my wife. And even though I’m in debt for my bad decisions, does it mean that I should have to face life alone? My family and my friends have abandoned me. Oh sure, they say that they’re there for me, but that’s nothing more than a feel-good lie. None are able to take me in after I fall. And willing to help pay my debt? Not a chance!

Do I sound spoiled? I’m entitled to be. I’ve always been there in a jiffy for my friends and family, loaning them money when they were short. I stayed at the hospital, through all hours of the night, with one friend after she was in a car accident. I let another crash at my house when he was having marital problems; heck maybe this helped cause my own marital problems! I have taken so much time for them because I was under the false impression that they would do the same for me. But life isn’t fair. Maybe this is why my business and my marriage suffered. I didn’t take enough time for myself. But thinking so is only a cheap cop-out. It’s more than just not just giving myself enough me time. I just wasn’t a good businessman to begin with. Yes, I can program like no other, being able to do everything from designing my own websites, to programming code and my own games, and to being a top-notch hacker – not that I hacked, at least not very often – but when it came to business, I was inept. I have always been a notoriously poor salesman. It was stupid to think that I could run my business without hiring a consultant.

Too late to give myself a pity-party now. I try to get lost in my surroundings. But I kick myself in the butt for even thinking that wasting a little bit of my money on this sideshow of cheap stuffed animals, overly-priced garbage food, and expensive low-quality rides was a good idea. Everyone here is a walking reminder, molded from my memory into physical form, that people care about themselves first. Each of them carries their own cross, drinking the dregs from their own bitter cups. Some are just better at hiding it than others. The only ones who seem truly at ease, well, except for the occasional whining and pouting ones, are the children. But hey, at least the ones throwing a tantrum are still being honest that not all is well in their little world.

I pass by game stalls. Throw the rings on a bottle or shoot however many figurines and win a cheap prize. No. I take it back. The cheap figurines and the bottles are probably worth more than the cheap prize. It would be less expensive to buy one of those stuffed animals from a store than blow all my money on tickets here. I almost break down, knowing that my ex-wife loved stuffed animals. I would good-naturedly tease her about it, telling her that she was too old for them. Now I would gladly pay in blood to give her as many of them as she wanted.

No use beating myself up. Society is already making me pay for my mistakes, and they won’t be satisfied until I’m finished paying out the nose.

I think of riding the Ferris wheel. It looks like a large golden circle lighting up the night sky. But what’s the point? I certainly won’t enjoy the view of flashy lights. Who knows? I might even throw myself off when I’m right at the top, in order to forget my problems. The Ferris wheel is a sick reminder that life takes us up, only to take us down again, and then, when the ride is over, we are down instead of up. Just like life, death is a downer. So scratch that. In fact, none of the rides look appealing. This only reiterates that coming here was a waste of time and money.

Then my eyes fall onto something. It’s a tent glowing a pale green, and there is a sign on it which reads Madame Antoaneta: Wish Granter.

Should I step in? Why not! It’s not like I have anything else going on.

Inside there are strings of lanterns hanging down with what looks like a green fire burning in them; a nice special effect that gives off the pale green! Woven tapestries of stars, the moon, and the sun are hung around the walls of the tent, and below my feet is a rug with the designs of leafy trees on it. A table is in the center, and behind it sits an old woman. She is wearing the traditional garb of a bandana around the head, golden circlets around her arms, a sari-like skirt with a piece of bright yellow fabric tied around the waist, and a white blouse.

“I have been expecting you,” she says.

“So, are you going to grant me my wish,” I phrase it more in a sarcastic manner than I do a question.

“If you wish me to do so, Robert Donavan.”

“What did you say?” I can’t believe she knows my name.

“Robert Donavan, age forty-three,” she speaks as if she were casually talking about the weather. “Your software business is failing, like your marriage.”

“Get out of town!” I nearly choke. “There’s no way you could know about all that.”

“There is,” she insists. “Your energy is written like a book, and those who train themselves can learn how to read it.”

This is unbelievable. If you had of asked me years ago – heck what am I saying – if you had of asked me just this afternoon, I would have said that fortune tellers were frauds. Then again, as far as I know, she could still be a fraud. There’s always such a thing as a lucky guess. Still, I play along. The woman’s relentless. To prove her point that she’s the real deal, she tells me the exact date of when I started my company and the name of it. I tell myself that she could have easily looked at my website. This makes perfect sense. I have my picture on there, as well as the date I started my software company, and, of course, my name is on there as the founder. As for trouble with my marriage, that’s just a lucky guess on her part. I mean, what entrepreneur or dreamer doesn’t have problems in their relationships? The list of divorces among the brilliant is endless.

“I know you’re having financial difficulties,” she continues, and I wish that she’d shut up. “However, I can grant you one wish. Any wish you like.”

What the heck! I’ll play along. It’s not like anything’s going to happen. “Sure,” I say, trying not to sound condescending.

“Are you sure?” Madame Ant – whatever her name is – is looking at me intently.

“Why wouldn’t I be? Is there some sort of voodoo curse attached?”

“I’m not a practitioner of the dark arts,” the gypsy flares at me.

“Right, right, right!” I try to calm her down. Some people have no sense of humor. “Anyway, what is this string attached?”

“Your wish will only last for one day,” she holds up a finger to drive the point across as though I’m deaf.

“Fine. I wish for a pepperoni” –

I’m surprised when I feel her hand slap me hard against my face. Boy! She hits hard for an old lady. I rub my face, knowing full well it won’t make the sting go away.

“Don’t mock!” she says. “I know the troubles you face, but mocking will not ease the pain. Nor can you hide from it. You must face it. But before doing so, I’m giving you the opportunity to have one day of happiness. But don’t treat this lightly. Think about it and then make a decision.”

Taking my hand in hers, she closes my fingers around something that feels wooden and polished. I open my hand to find some sort of pendant carved like a box. There are strange symbols of some sort of language inked on all sides of it.

“When you are serious, then make your wish.” Her voice isn’t mellow and she’s aggressively poking me in the chest. “Remember. Your wish can only last for one day. So make that one day special.”

“Should I wish for money?” I ask.

“Do you find that wise?”

“How should I know?” I almost shout.

She’s looking at me sadly and I hate it. I’m not asking for her pity. I try to give her a look back, indicating to her that I’m in no more mood for this nonsense, but she doesn’t get the picture.

“What good would money do?” she asks. “You would only have that money for one day, and anything you buy with it will all vanish by the next day.”

“Then what’s the point?” By now I’m exasperated. This is worse than only the three wishes rule.

She’s undeterred by my anger. “The point is to make that wish count. To make you appreciate that one day for a lifetime. Can you really appreciate being rich for one day?”

“Maybe if that one day is spent getting drunk off fine wine or spending it with blond bombshells, then yeah.”

“Those are superficial reasons. Can you not think of anything more pure, more rewarding?”

“I have no idea,” I shrug.

“Exactly!” she agrees. “But after you give it much thought, you’ll know what you need.”

“You don’t know what I need!” The nerve of this woman, thinking she knows what’s best for me.

If I think I can bring her to my level, I’m sadly made to look like a fool. She remains calm as she tells me, “You’re right, I don’t. But if you look in your heart, even if you have to do some deep searching, you will find what you’re looking for.” She sighs. “Now please, go think it over.”

And just like that, I can’t get a word in edgewise as this old lady, – the crone is stronger than she looks – is pushing me out of her tent, while trying to act polite about it.

 

Back home I think about what Madame Antoanet said about having a wish for one day. Don’t get me wrong. I know that it’s impossible. But what can I say? I’m desperate! This lovely house, complete with a garden out back and three bedrooms, I’m about to lose for an apartment. It’s bad enough that I lost my wife, but why do I have to lose my house! It’s safe to say that I’m in a philosophical mood, thinking about what my wish would be if it could come true.

What would be a good one day wish? As she said before, money wouldn’t work. Or wouldn’t it? I guess I could use the money for one day like no other. I could rent a limo, go to a fancy restaurant, and spend the night in a five-star hotel. No. It’s all so superficial. Experiencing a different culture could be rewarding. Say I wish to be over in France, Japan, or Germany, or wherever. But I would only have one day there, and that’s not enough time to learn the language or really immerse myself in the sights. I could wish to spend a day romantically with a beautiful woman, but once that wish wears off I’ll fall into deep depression, having loved and lost.

There must be something more meaningful. But what? Because life seems so pointless. But why does it have to be? Why can’t I enjoy the simple things in life? This gets me to thinking about kids. All of them so carefree. Was I any different as a child? Life was magical back then.

It all comes back to me. The feel of water crystals gushing out from the sprinklers, cooling me off on a hot summer day, or of when I quenched my thirst by drinking out of the garden hose, leaving me with a sweet, rubbery taste, finer than any wine. The wonder of seeing a ladybug resting on a leaf, or of seeing butterflies, like rainbows of vibrant colors, fluttering around. I recall laying on the soft grass while marveling at the clouds that look like islands in the sky with their own kingdoms. Then, there is the awe of seeing rainbows after storms while trying to unravel the mysteries of what sort of treasures were at the end. The taste of a hot dog or a cheeseburger, fresh from the grill with a hint of that savory charcoal flavor, floods my mouth. Or how about how out of this world hot chocolate crammed with marshmallows tasted after sledding on a winter day. It was like drinking warm heaven. I think back to when I could create my own worlds by using just blankets and cardboard boxes. It was these simple things in life that I enjoyed, including the mundane of getting high on sugar cereal while gluing my eyes to the T.V. to watch Saturday morning cartoons.

Money wasn’t an issue when I was a kid. It didn’t become so until my teenage years warped me. I was eager to be an adult, and now I’ve found with adulthood comes credit card debt and stress with juggling finances. But it’s not just money that’s the issue. I have a keen awareness of how messed up the world really is. And it’s not in shambles because of evil. I wish it was just good versus evil, like something out of my Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, let’s be honest, that would make life so much simpler. But it’s a matter of varying degrees of grey, of conflicting opinions about what’s moral and not moral, and how these questions, rather than making people better, just seem to bring out the worst in everyone. And that’s what sucks. It’s normally not good people fighting against bad people, but good people fighting amongst each other because of varying opinions.

My head’s not so high up in the clouds to think that children are free of hardships. But for a child in a good home with loving parents, the troubles don’t amount, as Humphrey Bogart would say, to a hill of beans. I don’t mean that kids don’t feel scared. I had to put up with bullies growing up. And I always had a fear of a monster under the bed, just waiting to reach out a scaly hand to drag me under the covers for dinner. But none of that could squeeze the joy out of my life with the magic I felt over everyday things and the joy I derived from simple pleasures. Add that to the fact that I’ve found adult bullies to be far worse than little kid or even teenage bullies. Adults have more effective ways of hurting you that don’t involve physical pain. As for the monsters, my belief in them has never gone away. But as an adult it has been displaced with something more sinister. Think about it. A monster isn’t some one-eyed, three-headed creature lined with many claws and gnashing teeth, or even those creatures from those creepy-pastas you read about online. Monsters are those politicians receiving bribes to look the other way when the environment is being destroyed, those who make money off of wars, dictators wiping out their citizens, or psychopaths who kill for the heck of it.

Why was I ever eager to grow up?

That’s it! That’s my wish! I wish to be a child again for one day. Six years old will do nicely. But wait! Not a child at this time period, alone and confused, but a child living back with his parents in the 1980s. But would wishing to be a child in the 1980s living with my parents count as more than one wish? I can’t even believe I’m even considering making a wish in the first place. Madame Antoanet is a fraud. I’m sure of it. And yet, as I mentioned earlier, I’m tired of life.

I’m smart enough to know that the pendant won’t count my rambling as one wish, or count my wish at all, but sometimes the thought of escaping from reality is nice.

I hold the wooden pendant tightly in my hands as I say the words loudly, “I wish to be six years old in the 1980s, living with my parents on a no-school day.”

Of course nothing happens! Why am I not surprised! It’s a no-brainer that I’ll have to declare bankruptcy tomorrow, and that I’ll have to deal another day without my wife. Then it’s only a matter of time before I have to sell my home to move into a cheap apartment, probably with some beer guzzling weirdo.

With these thoughts heavy in my mind, I make my way to my bedroom, slowly crawling under the heavy blankets on my bed. I’m tired. It’s been such a long day. One wouldn’t think a day at the carnival would be tedious, but it gave me a lot to think about. About life, about what’s important. It’s the simple things that are important. With this thought, I slowly fall asleep.

 

“Robert!” I hear the young voice of my mother calling me from the kitchen. “Breakfast is ready.”

It’s a Saturday morning at the start of spring. The sun’s shining on me, illuminating the rocket ship and outer-space blankets on my bed. My mom didn’t need to call me for breakfast. I have been up for the last hour watching Saturday morning cartoons on my small T.V.

During a commercial break, I quickly run out to get some freshly baked pan-cakes, delightfully soaked in syrup and melted butter. I plead with my mom to let me have breakfast in my room. She agrees as long as I’m careful. Back in my room, I watch brightly animated characters come to life as I bite into soggy pancakes, causing an explosion of sweet flavors in my mouth. I rinse it down with a glass of equally sweet orange juice, an elixir of life if there ever was one. Life doesn’t get any better than this.

But my favorite cartoons don’t last all day. Pretty soon I’m playing in the sandbox in the backyard. I’m a king, building my own castle, its turrets, and its walls. Being a king is boring, so I turn into a god, creating mountains, caves, and canyons around the castle. I finish it off by taking a hose and filling the canyons with water. Now there are rivers for the people to swim in.

Tired of playing in the sandbox, my parent’s garden catches my eye. The tomato plants, the rhubarb, the grape vines, and the raspberry bushes make up more than just a garden. It’s a jungle full of wild beasts, and I am the explorer bravely trudging through it. I’m glad my headquarters is still where I remember it. My parents let me place a little tent in there that I can sleep in if I promised to be careful. In this tent, I find shelter as I write down my observations of the jungle around me. I have everything I need; my binoculars, my flask full of fruit juice, my net for catching bugs, my notebook, and a little bed to sleep in. What will I see in the jungle? A tiger lurking about? Maybe some monkeys swinging from vines!

So much to do today. Later on, my friends will want to have a water gun fight, or to go down and catch frogs by the creek. Maybe we’ll even make up some new game to play.

I have one day to enjoy being a child again. One day to appreciate the simpler things in life. I plan to live it to the fullest. Because this is a gift that is more precious than any other.

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Who Shall Lead Ch 2

Daryal pass. Moonlight Night (painting by Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1890-1895

Recommended for ages 13 and up for violence. 

If you want to read chapter 1.

Myvern had spent most of his afternoon at the Dry Root Canyons, engaged in his favorite activity of bird and mammal watching. He didn’t much care for hunting, even though it was a Vun tradition. Rather he preferred to eat plants over animals, which made him weak and inept in the eyes of the other Vun.

Not that he cared. He had been told that he was weak enough times that he had learned to ignore what everyone else thought. He had been a disappointment to his parents and everyone else in the tribe for as long as he could remember. His punishment for being inadequate was to be ostracized. But it didn’t matter. It just gave him more time to commune out in nature, and it was the perfect time to do so, as autumn was approaching, driving way the summer heat.

Thus far, his eyes had picked out two golden tulun birds nesting together in a crevice about fifty feet down, their plumage coruscating like the sun. Further down in the basin was a zewt, a small rodent only the size of the thumb, nibbling upon the fruit of a kyaka bush. Myvern, as well as the other Vun, could adjust their eyes accordingly to see something close up or in the distance. It was just as well, because the Vun were deaf. Such eyes were needed to see a raiding party of Xibians coming from miles away.

But the Xibians weren’t the only threats. There were also the Korrigans to contend with, a race of bat-like creatures. Though these winged creatures didn’t possess sight nearly as excellent as the Vuns, or hearing as nearly as sharp as the Xibians, they still had both senses, as well as wings, which made them a force to contend with. Just to be safe, Myvern looked up into the skies. He saw a black shape high above. Adjusting his eyes, he focused on it. Thank goodness, it was only a bird. But one never knew. That’s why he was vigilant at all times.

Still, such vigilance didn’t rob Myvern out of the joys of life, even if finding those joys were in solitude away from the tribe. He had learned long ago to be content with his life as it was, not at what it couldn’t be. He could never hope to please the society he was born into, no matter how much he tried. He was too weak and too clumsy. He had never been able to learn how to effectively master the spear or the bow and arrow. And if even somehow, against all impossible odds, he could gain greater flexibility and prowess in hunting and fighting, what a tragedy it would be to die as someone else. Even if the rewards reaped acceptance, he would still not sacrifice himself on that altar for the high price that would come with it. He wasn’t a warrior. He was an artist. Sometimes he would take out a shagrit skin stretched across a wooden block to use it as a canvas to sketch on. There were plenty of dyes he could get from the flowers. Even some of the soil around the canyon provided a good charcoal like substance for drawing. Overall, Myvern couldn’t complain, even though he was lonely.

As his eyes looked down upon the canyon, he saw at sixty feet away, nestled between two large boulders, something small struggling. It was a root mouse, and somehow or other it had gotten caught between the rocks.

Myvern wasted no time in scanning the canyon walls near him to find the best way down. Catching his gaze was a wall with small notches for gripping. He wasted no time scaling down that part of the cliff side. Thankfully, the wall of the canyon nearby him wasn’t fifty to eighty feet, but only twenty. Still, one wrong slip could mean injury or death.

Out of all of Myvern’s strengths, caution was his greatest strength. Nonetheless if he did fall, and in the process sent himself to the underworld, it wouldn’t be that huge of a loss. His parents certainly wouldn’t miss him. Besides, who was he to say that his life was worth more than the root mouse caught between the rocks? Negative thinking aside, he made it down the canyon, intact. His footing had lost hold a couple of times, causing him to get a few scratches and bruises, but nothing he couldn’t recuperate from.

With no time to lose, he rushed over to the little mouse that was trapped tightly between the boulders. Myvern was at a loss about how the mouse could get stuck between them. Regardless, it broke his heart to see the look of terror upon the little rodent’s face. He had to free it, but how? He couldn’t pull the mouse out, lest he decapitate it from the abdomen. He could try to run his fingers in the crevice, to see if he could gently dislodge the mouse’s feet, but his fingers wouldn’t fit.

Myvern looked at the stones beneath his feet, hoping to find something that could chisel through the rock. As if in answer to an unspoken prayer, something glittery nearby, like petrified starlight, pierced his pupils. It was a pair of white crystals that had washed in from a flood. Firm, the crystals had the potential to chisel a rock, but doing it by hand would take hours. There had to be something he could use for a hammer. Then out of the corner of his eyes he saw a nearly perfectly shaped oval stone. Handling it, he found that it had a good grip. The stone, along with one of the stronger crystals, would work nicely. He would have to work fast, seeing as the sun was setting. Granted, he could see well in the dark, but that didn’t stop the other creatures from coming out. This complicated a situation that required working with precision, as hammering away too fast could mean ending up stabbing the mouse with the crystal or smashing him with the rock.

Carefully, but at a steady pace, Myvern chiseled away. The boulders were harder than he’d anticipated. At first he was only able to scratch them, but gradually small chips fell away. Occasionally he was able to take a small chunk out, but the process as a whole was time consuming. It wasn’t so much the chiseling that was the hard part. It was seeing the fear in the root mouse’s eyes. He could even see each little individual hair quiver due to the mouse’s shaking body. Myvern tried not to notice, but it was hard when he had to partly watch where both his hammer was going and where his crystal was aligned. He breathed in deeply, telling himself not to stress. Just because the root mouse was anxious didn’t mean that he needed to be. He was in control. He could do this.

Or so he thought.

A predator crouching in a crevice had other ideas. Though the crevice was almost pitch black because of the setting sun, Myvern’s eyes could still differentiate the black figure against the shadows. It was a sqylin, a type of small weasel, but very fast, very agile, with sharp fangs that could inject toxins into the blood to render temporary paralysis or death. While Vun weren’t a part of their diet, the sqylin would certainly fight him for the creature. Every fiber in Myvern’s body told him to leave the mouse to the predator, but he hesitated. Could he in good conscious say that his life was more important than a lower life form? Besides, who would really miss him back at the tribe? For all he knew, the root mouse may very well have family that would miss him. Very well, Myvern would stand his ground.

Myvern watched closely as the sqylin slunk out from the shadows. Back arched, feet stretched forward, the sqylin was ready to pounce on the mouse. But then it looked at Myvern, giving him a look that clearly told him to let him have his meal. As if to answer the challenge, Myvern withdrew a blade he had sheathed in his tunic. He hated the thought of killing. And then it came to him, he couldn’t stand his ground. He couldn’t save the root mouse. If he were to slay the sqylin, would he not be a hypocrite for valuing the life of the mouse over that of the predator, which mattered just as much as that of the prey? What if the sqylin needed to capture the mouse for its cubs? Myvern couldn’t deprive the right for the weasel or its’ young to eat.

Slowly, he backed away from the sqylin until he was a sufficient distance. The predator turned his sights back to the root mouse. Unable to bear looking at the panic stricken eyes of the little mouse, Myvern turned his back to the helpless plight. Nature had to take its course.

Still, he couldn’t help but feel awful about the no-win situation. It was best not think about it. He had other problems.

It was nearly nightfall. Larger predators would be finding ample places to hide amongst the shadows of the canyons. Even with his exceptional eyesight he would have to be extra diligent. Cautiously, he kept looking from his left to his right, turning around here and there, scanning each and every nook of the canyon walls, looking forward and upward in case some creature was getting ready to pounce. So far the canyons proved to be calm. He prayed that they’d stay that way until he was safe back home.

He made his way back to where he had climbed down and breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he was almost free of the canyon’s confines. He put his hands and feet into the bottom notches, gradually making his way up. He was finding that it was easier to climb out of the canyon than into it. That was until his eyes caught something slithering in the darkness of one of the crevices he was about to put his hand through.

The shape of the scales indicated that a noose viper had made its home in the crevice. Myvern shuddered, but retained his grip. He hated snakes, particularly the noose being one of the most dangerous. Its venom was acidic enough to corrode flesh, plant, and stone alike. To make it more lethal, the serpent could shoot a stream of venom from its mouth up to a distance of fifty feet. Myvern still had vivid memories, from when he was a child, in which an accident occurred with some Vun out hunting. The hunters had come back with burns. Some of the burns were worse than others, with their skin rotting away and blood gushing out. The witch doctor had not been able to save everyone, no matter how many prayers he had had offered to the god parents, or whatever herbs and medicine he had administered. Not even the copious amounts of bandages he had wrapped over the corroding skin could help. Out of the six hunters, three had died that day, two had become seriously disabled, and only one had fully recovered. Since then, Myvern had harbored a special fear towards this class of serpents, often wondering if they weren’t created by the godly parents, but by devils. And now that he was staring at a noose snake, his generally gentle disposition was waning as he contemplated yanking the beast out and snapping its neck. He could easily do so. The serpent’s head was turned away from him. Also he knew where and how to grab it.

But despite his disdain, he couldn’t bring himself to kill the snake. Whether his decision was made out of his supposed benevolence for all creatures, or, in this case, out of cowardice, he couldn’t say. Maybe it didn’t matter. What mattered was finding another way out. He wasn’t very far up, so he thought of just letting go. He looked down to make sure there weren’t any deadly critters below him. Knowing his luck, there’d be another noose snake waiting for him down below. But the way was clear. He dropped down, and began to scan the cliff sides for another potential way out.

By now night had completely covered the landscape, so Myvern kept his eyes wide open for fear of becoming prey. He cursed his altruism for trying to save the mouse. It only put him in a precarious situation in which he was walking near the point of a knife. Briefly, he spun around to see if a pack of ulyixs hadn’t surrounded him. They liked to hunt at night. He peered down the long corridor, both behind and in front of him, but there weren’t any ulixys to be found. Still, the canyons branched into many different corridors, and he could easily get lost in them.

He was about to give up when his eyes caught something sparkling in a corridor to the left of him. It was a puddle of water illuminated by starlight. The source of the puddle came from a small crack steadily dripping out water. By it towered a tree. It was an old grandfather tree who had lived for hundreds of years in this location. It was tall, reaching its woody arms out over the canyon. This was a stroke of luck. He only had to make sure that the tree was free from predators, something he had forgotten to do before climbing up the cliff side. His retinas took in every portion of the tree, analyzing every branch and each little leaf in the greatest of detail.

Finding the tree to be safe, Myvern began his ascent. Some of the limbs were fragile, so he’d have to be careful, and not just for his sake, but for the sake of the tree. Trees held a special place in the hearts of the Vun, symbolizing growth, abundance, necessities, and power. They were reminders of the eternal trees that had once dotted the earth when it was a paradise without death; a time before the Xibians had poisoned the gardens, thus incurring the wrath of the gods.

Eventually, Myvern reached the top of the tree, happy to see that he hadn’t desecrated it at all. From a branch closest to the surface, he jumped onto solid ground. On his knees he turned towards the tree and gave it a prayer of thanks, asking the gods to preserve it for many more years to come. He was now on one of the plateaus of the Dry Root Canyons, but he wasn’t concerned about being stuck. Many plateaus had rock bridges or were within jumping distance. The moon wasn’t out, but the numerous stars provided enough light. It was no hard task that he found his way back to the start of the canyon, and from there he was able to make his way back to the tribe, albeit rather reluctantly. He could only hope that many of them were fast asleep, so he wouldn’t have to deal with their bullying.

Adjusting his eyes, he saw the fires of oil lanterns and fire pits within stone houses, from far away. While both the Xibians and the Vun were gifted with fire from the gods, only the Vun had been given the gift of masonry. They were the ones blessed to live in stone dwellings, whereas the Xibians, due to being blind to the Vuns suffering ages ago, were consigned to live in the tents made out of the hides of dead animals.

Myvern felt sorry for the good Xibians having to share a curse with the rest. By a good Xibian, he meant the ones who were smart enough to acknowledge the wrongs that they had committed against the Vun. It wasn’t their fault that they had been born into a backwards society.

This wasn’t to say that the Vun were perfect. Their ancestors may have been in the right, but the current generation of Vun were too obsessed with war. And because Myvern wasn’t, he faced the punishment of either being ostracized or ridiculed. Out of the two, he preferred being ostracized. At least then they left him alone. When they ridiculed him, they were merciless. Occasionally they would throw sharpened sticks at him, not sharp or large enough to kill, but enough to seriously hurt. Usually their ridicule didn’t delve into such violence, but sharp words spoken by their hands and fingers could cut open a tender heart. Myvern liked to think that his will had grown stronger over the years, but it still wasn’t uncommon for a word to pierce through his stoic soul, greatly wounding him. A part of him thought that he could deal with it if only his parents were proud of him. For it was their displeasure that hurt him the most. But there was nothing he could do. He knew the he would always prefer drawing and communing with nature more than he would wielding a spear and shedding blood. Backwards people or not, the idea of shedding Xibian blood was abhorrent to him.

Entering confines of the tribe, he found that hardly anyone was about. The lookouts posted on the towers were vigilant, but they didn’t say a word to Myvern, which was fine by him. The fires gave off a faint glow from inside the sandstone homes, indicating that many a Vun were relaxing after a long day of hunting. They usually mocked him, telling him that he would starve, but Myvern always harvested plenty of edible roots, fruits, and nuts to get by.

Despite the teasing and the vindictiveness, there was a peaceful feeling of returning to his home. A path gradually wound up against the neatly carved out homes of the sandstone cliffs and ridges. The higher up the house, the more likely it was to be carved into the very cliff side itself. Such was Myvern’s home, carved into the very top cliff-side, just under the ledge. Myvern used the light from the stars as well, as the occasional light from the homes, to make his way up the winding path until he came to the ladder that lead up the cliff to his home.

Back inside his abode, Myvern didn’t worry about lighting a fire. The truth was the Vun didn’t need fire to see in the dark. Many only had a fire so that they might properly worship the gods, a symbol of their light and knowledge. But Myvern had felt that the gods had forsaken him long ago. Why have a fire when he was in the always in the dark? In fact, he did very little to honor the gods, unless it was praying for the well-being of trees, which he adored with the deepest of reverence.

Lack of light wasn’t a problem. The stars glittering outside gave adequate light to see the faint features of his abode. He could see the hearth, the table in the middle, the knitted rug below it, and the doorway to his room.

Myvern crawled into his bed and tucked himself tightly under the covers, away from the problems of the world. In the gentle embrace of his bed he slipped into sleep.

 

The rays of morning light, shining on his feet, alerted him that it was time to get up. Myvern had learned long ago to have his feet, and not his head facing towards the window, lest he wanted the bright sunlight to burn his eyes. He yawned and stretched. He didn’t want to spend too much time in bed. He had his garden to attend to at the top of the plateau. He quickly cleaned up and then got dressed before heading out the hatch above the ladder by his bed.

The hatch and the ladder hadn’t always been there. Originally, there had been a gaping hole where the hatch. He had never needed to ask his parents why they had moved him to a cliff-side cave where rain could get in. They had wanted to punish him for being abnormal. But it didn’t matter. While they had initially caused him some discomfort, he had turned the situation to his advantage. By the time he had finished constructing the ladder and crawling out of the hole onto the top of the plateau, he had found a magnificent view waiting for him. To further his good fortune, he had found that the plateau, though mainly sandstone, had a small portion of perfect soil for gardening. He had no idea how such soil got there. It almost seemed like a miracle, considering the rest of the plateau was ridged sandstone. Nonetheless, from then on he made use of the good soil to plant a small garden of fruit bushes, vegetables, and herbs. He had considered planting some trees as well, but decided against it in case the roots cracked through his roof. The rest of the work had gone by smoothly. It hadn’t taken him long to create a hatch out of the hole.

Myvern climbed up the ladder and opened the hatch to the plateau, stepping out to feel the gentle breeze caress his skin and blow his hair. He breathed in deeply the coming of autumn. It was the beauty of touch. His parents, who had always loathed him, had never touched him except out of anger. He envied children whose parents cradled them rather than hit them. He felt a longing for a gift that he had never been privileged to have. He was ashamed when he felt the wind blow some of the tears streaming down his face. He had told himself long ago that this didn’t affect him. He wouldn’t let it now. He had work to do. The garden needed watering.

Thankfully, there were plenty of sandstone basins that held rainwater through the seasons. A clay jug by one of the basins was used to scoop out the water. He took the jug, submerged it in one of the basins of water and sprinkled just enough on his plants. Since it wasn’t too hot out because of the encroachment of autumn, the plants only needed a little bit of water. When it was summer they always needed more. But it wasn’t all hard work when it was hotter out. During the summer the basins of water were delightful to swim or float in.

He looked at his garden in satisfaction. He had worked tirelessly throughout the years to harvest the many different seeds from a plethora of vegetables and fruits. This hadn’t been easy, as vegetation was a bit sparse in the Vun inhabited regions. Yet, his persistence in searching the wetter areas of the canyon during the rainier seasons had paid off, and in time his efforts had yielded a garden of edibles. His summer crops were nearly depleted, but that wasn’t a problem as his fall crops of binyu beans and dool roots were nearly ripe. Collecting vegetable and fruit seeds was a momentous labor in his region, but it was well worth it if he didn’t have to kill an animal. This alone gave him peace of mind.

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Who Shall Lead: Ch 1 Revised

1280px-Charles_Bertier_-_Vallée_du_Vénéon

La Vallée du Vénéon à Saint-Christophe-en-Oisans by Charles Bertier, from Wikimedia Commons.

A light breeze, blowing a couple grains of sand past the tent, made it to the ears of Arinthia. It was an obnoxious sound, brushing against her tent and causing her to wake up. But it wasn’t the only thing that was keeping her from sleep. The scratching of a tiny volmont spider grated against the grains of wood on one of the tent’s poles. Five feet away from her tent, she could hear a plains hopper, a small insect, chomping away on the grass.

Like all Xibians, Arinthia was blind, but with keen ears that more than made up for it. She could hear a blossom fall from a flower, or the first drop of rain splash from almost twenty feet away. If sounds grew too intense, she was able to shut them out; a light gift that came with the curse. Blindness was not a deterrent or handicap to her people. For thousands of generations the Xibians had lived without sight, the very concept of it being foreign and incomprehensible to them.

Arinthia arose yawning, and put on her robe. The dandel hide felt good against her skin on such a cold morning. Winter was coming, that much was certain. She could even hear the change of seasons crackling in the air.

Crawling out of her tent, she was greeted by the thumping of a pair of footsteps walking in a wide gape, carrying a quick stride. Everyone in the village recognized it to be that of Keyro, one of their top hunters.

“Good day, Arinthia,” he said, too loudly which almost hurt everyone’s hearing. “How are you this fine day?”

“I don’t know,” said Arinthia, “seeing as the day has only just begun. What do you want, Keyro?”

“For you to join me on the hunt.” The air whistled as he extended an arm.

“And by hunt,” she formed the sentence slowly, “do you mean that I’ll be able to carry a bow and take down animals as well?”

“That’s silly!” he made no effort to disguise his disgust. “You’re a woman. Your job is to clean the carcasses and to cook.”

“Can’t do it! I’d probably burn it, or season the meat with the wrong herbs.”

“It’s not that hard!” protested Keyro.

“Then if it’s not that hard, then I’m sure that you can manage.”

“But it’s not a man’s job.”

“Nor is it my job either,” said Arinthia, hoping to cut the conversation short.

“You really need to be put in your place!” he chided.

Arinthia sighed inwardly. No such luck.

“You were made by Father above to be subservient” continued Keyro, his finger noisily cutting through the air. “What do you think he’ll say when your spirit passes through the gates of the dead, up the bridge to the island above? Can you imagine how disappointed he’ll be in his disobedient daughter, always mouthing off? He’ll teach you a lesson, you can be sure. Father will punish you by having you clean the pots and pans of the Eternal Kitchen forever.”

“Well, if that’s the case, then I’ll have an ally in Mother above,” huffed Arinthia. “She’ll chastise him as only a woman can, and she’ll make him sleep alone while she takes all the royal bedding. Then she’ll threaten him with an annulment of their marriage.”

“How dare you speak lightly of Father above!” roared Keyro.

“How dare you!” she raised her voice even louder, hoping to cause his ears to bleed, “to even think I’d want to be sealed as your companion when you’re not a man, but a mere boy who failed his rite of initiation.”

Now she could her Keyro’s blood flush in his face and the grinding of his teeth. In a sense, she could hear his anger, and it was palpable. Her sharp tongue had cut through a nerve.

“If you weren’t a woman, I’d slap you across the face,” he hissed.

“What difference does it make it I’m a woman or not,” she retorted. “You shouldn’t be hitting anyone, be it male or female.”

A heavy staff thudded upon the dirt, reverberating like an earthquake. “Lay a hand on her and I’ll lay my staff on you,” came the raspy voice of Jorgek.

“You don’t scare me, old man!” boasted Keyro.

Stupid, Arinthia thought to herself. If you wanted to lie, you had to lie well. Keyro couldn’t lie to save his own life. He couldn’t even control the thumping of his own heart. The perspiration streaming off of him, like a roaring river, didn’t do him any favors either.

“Shall I knock you on your backside,” ventured Jorgek, the air rushing against his staff as he raised it up in intimidation.

Keyro backed off, the thudding of heavy footfalls as he ran off.

“That impudent brush hopper!” exclaimed Jorgek. “My dear, did he” – The old Xibian paused, completely puzzled. Arinthia was laughing. “I fail to see what’s so funny,” he said.

“You don’t?” she asked.

Arinthia had always loved Jorgek. The oldest of the Xibians in the tribe came across as grumpy and bitter to many, but that was only because they never made time to get to know him. Those who did found a kindly old man under the rough exterior, quick to right wrongs. In that sense, he was much like Arinthia.

She had known him for years. When she was a child, she had originally feared him. But unlike all the other children who were terrified of him, she alone had approached him, having possessed the courage that many her age had lacked. It was the courage to listen to each and every one of his footsteps. To hear the way he gritted his teeth in frustration, or the sound his eyelids made when they opened and closed. She let her ears swallow and digest each of the old Xibian’s sounds until she grew to learn what kind of a person he was. She grew to hear his inside appearance, not his outside. His heart was the most useful in helping her come to a conclusion regarding his personality. Certainly he yelled at young children to keep their distance, and he didn’t, generally speaking, have much patience with just about anyone else, even those his age. But when people were frustrated or in pain he was the first to lend a listening ear if they would let him.

It wasn’t to say that she became friends with the old Xibian overnight. Jorgek had many social barriers he had put into place to guard himself with. But in time, just by listening, she began to relate to him. This slowly opened up communication, and eventually a mutual understanding. Then, as the years passed, a friendship blossomed like a flower in the spring after a long winter. From her later childhood to the present it was common for her to hunt with him in the fields, to help him make leather from the wild shagrits, and to sometimes just philosophize about life. He had taken upon himself the mantle of a grandfather she had never had.

There were only a couple of topics that were points of contention among the two of them. One such was regarding the Vun. Jorgek believed peace should and could be made between them and the Xibians, whereas Arinthia knew better. Those that could see were enemies, having killed her parents and many others. They had robbed her people of their birthright years ago. Some things could never be forgiven. But she could forgive Jorgek for holding that faulty viewpoint.

Regardless, she wasn’t thinking of any of her qualms towards him at the moment, being far more grateful that he had come to her aid. Hence her laughter. She was laughing because she knew that he would be there, for at least a little while longer, to protect her.

“You should have heard the way he ran off, the way his heart was about to burst through his chest, and the noise of his sweat flying off him,” laughed Arinthia.

“My dear girl, I heard it all,” said Jorgek. “I’m not deaf, yet. But when I am, you know what to do.”

Indeed she did. If a Xibian ever lost his or her hearing it was considered an act of mercy to take them upon the altar to offer them up as a blood sacrifice. When one had outlived their purpose, their blood could potentially heal the land if the gods were well pleased with how they lived their lives.

“I do,” said Arinthia. “But let’s not think of that now. Did you not tell me yesterday that you wished for the two of us to go hunting this morning?”

“Yes. I’m so glad you remembered,” his teeth clacked and his lips smacked into a smile. He sighed. “But I digress. I’m getting old. You know this. What hope does an old Xib like me have against the freshness of youth?”

“You mean to tell me that you just lied about being able to give Keyro a beating? Don’t doubt yourself, old man. You’ll grow senile before you lose the strength of your legs.”

“Why, you’re just as impudent as he!”

Arinthia shrugged. “Did this just now dawn on your mind? Don’t tell me it took you over fifteen years to finally come to that conclusion. I want to think that your mind is as quick as your legs.”

“Ha!” laughed the old Xibian. “My fists are the quickest, and if you insist on being treated like a man rather than a woman, I’ll knock you on the ground so fast that you won’t hear the wind rushing past my fists.”

“No, I give up,” she laughed. “You really could give me bruises.”

“You’re absolutely right on that account. When I was a young man, I was the envy of the tribe, able to take on the chief himself. I could have any woman I wanted. I was the pinnacle of” –

“Now you’re just making stuff up,” interjected Arinthia. “Are you going to keep babbling on? At this rate the herds will have moved out of our territory.”

“My dear, you know perfectly well that my hearing is superb and that I would have been the first to hear them. Not you. But I do grow weary of your biting tongue. Maybe some good old hunting will shut you up.”

“I think you’re right. I’m growing impatient.”

“Then there’s only one way to cure that,” he said in agreement, the bones of neck cracking as he nodded. He took off, the air whistling to a near screech because of his speed. After all these years, age hadn’t slowed him. He still soared over the land, even with a staff in hand. It was Arinthia who had to keep up.

Each blade of grass sloshed and some crunched under his feet, depending on the amount of water they had received. The flapping noises of the tents against the light breeze and the crackling of the morning fires grew fainter as they neared the mile mark out of the tribe.

They were approaching over the Dead Plains; a misplaced name if there ever was one;  considering they were far from dead, or being anywhere near the thresholds of death. Rather, the plains were living and breathing with all manner of life placed by the loving parents above. Soft thuds of insects echoed throughout the Dead Plains, accompanied to the thunderous tunes of the hooves of the mighty shagrits. Sometimes the mighty shagrit beasts snorted, causing the air to reverberate around their breath. Arinthia could slightly hear the brushing of a shagrit’s fur when a small fly landed upon them. Aside from the shagrits, other animals could be heard nearby. From the ground came a light but steady scratching, as the tiny claws of the little blue and red moles constructed their tunnels. Sharp teeth gritted, like a rocks being scraped against other rocks, about a quarter of a mile away. It was the ulyix’s getting ready to hunt their prey, the shagrits.

Arinthia chided herself. While her ears were too enraptured by the cacophony of nature, Jorgek had already found a suitable hiding place behind a boulder. The air whistled a musical note around his bowstring as he slowly pulled it back. The first kill would be his. Not that his obtaining the first kill mattered in the scheme of things, but she and the old Xibian had a contest as to who could achieve the first kill. For a moment it looked as if it would be his. But, as luck would have it, Jorgek, in his anticipation, didn’t pull the bow string back far enough and the arrow clanked on some rocks just a couple of inches away from the shagrit’s hoof.

The rumbling of dirt being kicked up from the lumbering beast indicated that it was running to the west. With no time to lose, she took a shot at the beast. Her arrow whistled through the air, singing of death, piercing her ears. But it found its mark. The shagrit fell to the earth. The beast’s heartbeat, still pounding like thunder, grew fainter and fainter until it was mere whisper, to whence it was no more.

“Looks like dinner is on me tonight,” boasted Arinthia.

“I let you have it,” snorted Jorgek. “Besides, I’m getting too old for hunting and cooking anyway.”

“And yet you were able to outrun me,” she pointed out to the old man.

“Is that so? No wonder I had no energy left for hunting.”

“Come, old friend,” Arinthia patted his shoulder. “I’m going to prepare you a dinner fit for a village chieftain, using only the finest herbs and spices.”

“Such as the kind you can get from the fields on any day,” he pointed out.

“You have no imagination,” laughed Arinthia.

“I’m afraid I burnt mine out many years ago,” he sighed.

“No matter, old man. Dinner is still on me.”

Back at the tribe’s encampment, Arinthia was greeted by the gossip of the women and the girls, and it was no wonder. She had blood on her from when she and Jorgek had carried down the large shagrit (something that was very unbecoming of a woman, both the hunting of an animal and the lifting of anything heavy) and they could smell it. It was a sour and bitter smell that reeked of death. To further the indignation of the tribe, Arinthia had broken another code by not washing after she had cut up the pieces of meat to leave hanging out by her tent before cooking them. If a woman or a girl was to get herself dirty, she was to wash herself immediately, something Arinthia had always refused to do. It was bad enough when the women of the tribe got a speck of dirt on them, but to have specks of blood, that was blasphemy to the gods themselves.

Jorgek would have fended her from the malicious gossip and the outright verbal abuse, but he was incapacitated, having hurt his back helping to carry the strips of meat of the animal. Not that Arinthia minded being alone. She saw herself as far from being a damsel in distress. She could hold her own, particularly against the three primary instigators, even if they held important positions of power within the tribe. There was Zylin, a daughter of a high priest, Hymla, one of daughters of the chief’s advisors, and finally, conducting herself with the greatest of pomp and the greatest of self-aggrandizement, there was Kywal, the Chief’s daughter. Zylin and Hymla followed Kywal as though she were a goddess herself, worthy of their admiration and subjugation. Certainly the chief’s daughter did order them about, but in the end they found it worth it to be a part of the elite. There were numerous members of the tribe who they snubbed their noses at, but Arinthia was the one they enjoyed showing their condescension to the most, and the reason was obvious. For at least the other women, even though they were of lower rank, still knew their place as women. But it stirred the hearts of Kywal, Zylin, and Hymla to anger that Arinthia couldn’t accept her place.

“Still acting beastly, I see,” Kywal’s voice grated like a spear piercing animal bone. “Really Arinthia, would it hurt you to exercise more feminine restraint and dignity?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Arinthia shrugged. “I had no one as an example to learn it from, least of all you three.”

The grating of Kywal’s fists clenching, along with the rapid beating of her heart, collaborated together to produce a dissonance of rage. By the sounds of things, Arinthia knew that she had crossed a line, but she didn’t care. Though Kywal wanted to strike her, Arinthia knew that she wouldn’t. Even those at the top of the hierarchy had their code of honor that they were expected strictly to adhere to, for it was given by the gods themselves, and defiling it could invoke a great cursing.

“Ignore her,” Hymla implored Kywal. “She’s just a leech, hardly worth getting upset about.”

“Leach!” exclaimed Arinthia. “You must be mistaken Hymla. From what I understand, you three always leach after what your fathers provide. As for me, I provide for myself with my own hard work.”

“Such insolence!” shrieked Kywal. “Are you insinuating that we are idle?”

“I didn’t think it was much of an insinuation as it was a statement,” retorted Arinthia, not being one to miss the mark.

“I’m sure the gods will forgive you if you strike the smugness from her face,” Zylin goaded Kywal.

“Remember the precepts,” Hymla reminded her two friends in not so much a humble way, but piously, in the hopes that they would show Arinthia that they were every bit her superiors.

“You’re right,” said Arinthia, hoping to humor them with her false humility, though she knew it wasn’t very likely. “I am unworthy in your presence, and I could certainly cultivate a spirit of meekness in following the precept the god and goddess have set before us, which, in my case, is learning to be more lady like.”

“I guess we can’t all grow up possessed with natural grace,” Kywal feigned pity. Her insincerity was evident enough, but if she would toy with Arinthia, Arinthia would toy with her. “Perhaps I was too hard on you,” the chief’s daughter continued. “Bad habits aren’t easy to break.”

“This is true,” said Arinthia. And unable to resist one last jab she added, “Just as many of us who have the unfortunate habit of spending our time in the company of spineless urchins who only tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need to know.”

“Indeed,” huffed Kywal, the sound of a storm raging in her as her lungs inhaled oxygen.

Kywal walked the opposite direction of Arinthia. Zylin and Hymla trailed behind her like two obedient canyon wolf pups.

Sadly, the gossip didn’t stop with those three. As Arinthia made her way back to her tent, the whispers flew through the air, stinging her ears like hornets. It went without saying that the other Xibians knew that whispering, no matter how low they tried to keep their voices, amounted to very little. Rather whispering was just considered a form of being polite within their culture. Why? She could never figure that out. There seemed to be something condescending about pretending to be polite when one could just be upfront. At least with honesty you didn’t have to worry about trying to conceal your heart rate. Yet, she didn’t care as much about the gossip circulating among the adults. For there’s was spoken to one another more in a voice of concern, instead of condemnation, for Arinthia, unlike how Kywal and her two lackeys spoke of her. Yet, a tribe devoid of gossip would be the ideal.

Putting these thought out of her mind, Arinthia took an old tree branch to carve into a spear. Finding a good rock to sit on, she started to whittle away the large and bulky branch laying across her lap. This wouldn’t take long. Each time her knife carved a slice off, the branch grew thinner, more elegant. Spears weren’t the only things she carved out of wood. Over the years she had become quite skilled in carving everything from bowls and spoons to little wooden sculptures. Her favorite carving were two little wooden statues she had made of her parents. She had carved their likeness not long after they had passed away, when she was a girl of seven years of age.

Her parents had been lost to the Vun, the rival tribe. Because of this, she would always hate the Vun. She didn’t need her leaders telling her how evil they were. She already knew. When she was a little girl, she couldn’t take up a spear to kill those who murdered her parents, so she tried to honor her parents by preserving their likeness in a carving. It went without saying that her carvings weren’t perfect to start out with. It took her many years to get the likeness right, but she never doubted that she did eventually achieve their nearly, if not a perfect, likeness. She had carved many things since then, but the little wooden statues of her parents would always be her favorite.

The time whittled away just as she whittled away on the wood, and soon she held a spear in her hands while her feet sat in a hill of wood carvings. It was a good spear. It would find its mark.

Sufficiently hungered, it was now time to prepare dinner from the hunt. She was about to gather sticks of wood for the fire pit beside her tent, when she heard the sounds of footsteps and the rattling of wood.

“You shouldn’t be up and about,” said Arinthia. “You hurt your back.” Jorgek’s muscles reverberated like a fierce wind as he approached.

“Listen to that,” the old Xibian said. “It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

“I thought I told you to let me take care of dinner.”

“I did. You said you’d cut and cook up the meat. But you didn’t say I couldn’t gather firewood for it.”

Arinthia sighed. He was a stubborn old man. “Just put them down and take a seat, old fool. “And please, let me take care of the rest.”

“Can I at least start the fire?”

“With the way your back muscle is strained right now, I’d rather you not, lest it grow worse.”

Despite the grumpy Xibian’s protests, Arinthia was already on her knees over the fire pit, scraping her knife against a flint. So accustomed was she to using a knife and flint that she had a fire blazing in no time.

It was beautiful. Each of the fire’s flames were a different instrument, making music slightly distinct from the other, but all blending together to make a chorus of pops, crackles, and low rumbles. Fire! It was the song of life, but also the song of death, and it sang of both.

Arinthia roasted the meat over a spit. She breathed in the heat of the flames while giving a prayer of thanksgiving to the god parents. The prayer would last for the whole duration of the cooking of the meat. While praying, she would continually place sticks upon the fire when it was called for. The meat and fat sizzled like a rainstorm and popped like a cork above the fire. When her ears detected that the meat was fully cooked, she ceased her prayers, and cut a couple of slabs off of it for Jorgek and herself. She handed Jorgek a wood plate, she had carved, with a piece of meat on it.

“Ah, your parents would be proud of you,” Jorgek smacked his lips upon taking a bite out of their kill.

“For my cooking, old man?” she asked.

“You young people always just assume,” Jorgek indigently shot back. “I was going to say that they would be proud of what a strong and independent woman you turned out to be.”

“I was of the mind I was supposed to be subservient.”

Jorgek sighed. “Who’s giving you problems, girl? Let me know, and I’ll give them three times as many.”

“Would it be a fair fight? It would be three against one. And you’re so, well, old.”

“Don’t underestimate my shriveled body, because I have the strength of ten young men,” Jorgek boasted, his hand banged against his chest like a drum.

“Yes, but you’d have to then take on the chief and his advisors.”

“Oh, so it’s them. Yes, that does cause a problem. Ah well, I do think your parents would be proud of you.”

“Especially if I avenged them of their murderers,” she nodded.

“Would your parents want you to harbor revenge in your heart?”

“They would want me to avenge them,” Arinthia found herself growing tense.

“Revenge or avenge?”

“Is there a difference?”

“I don’t think so,” said Jorgek thoughtfully. “Do you?”

“Yes,” said Arinthia resolutely. “They killed my parents.”

“That’s what you’ve often said, young lady. But who, who killed your parents?”

“The Vuns,” said Arinthia impatiently.

“But which Vun?”

“Does it matter?”

“If you want justice, then it better matter,” a bone Jorgek had thrown aside knocked against a log. “Only one, or a few of them, are guilty of killing your parents.”

“They are all Vun!” she protested.

“And they are all individuals,” added Jorgek.

Arinthia inwardly fumed, not bothering to hide the beats of her heart from him. The old man was so reasonable in many aspects of his life. Why couldn’t he be reasonable enough to see that the Vun were monsters beyond any sort of empathy? They were even worse than the Korrigans, who they also had to listen for. She took a huge bite out of the shagrit meat, feeling she’d rather choke on it than have to listen to anymore of Jorgek’s nonsense.

“Have you ever stopped to ask yourself how the Vun see us?” the old Xibian pressed the matter, not one to be deterred.

“As prey to hunt.”

“And we don’t hunt them?”

By now Arinthia was growing increasingly exasperated. “That’s different,” she snapped. “We are hunting them so they don’t kill us first. Ours is out of necessity and protection, not out of pure enjoyment.”

“And yet it would seem to give you pleasure to kill all the Vun for what a couple of them did to your parents,” stated Jorgek gravely.

At a loss for words, Arinthia finished up her meal before throwing the bone into the fire, which snapped much like her heart. “I don’t bask in your company in order to be put down,” she curtly told him as she left the fire to crawl into her tent.

“Offense is not my intent,” said Jorgek. “But I do know that you are far too intelligent to just buy all the lies that the chief, the elders, and the priests give.”

As fantastic as her hearing was, she still managed to block out what he said.

Inside the confines of her tent, Arinthia found solitude. Behind her bedding of furs was a mantle she had carved, and upon it were her little wooden statues of her parents.

Silently she spoke to them, but not by whispers as that would still be loud enough for Jorgek, who was still sitting by the fire outside, to hear. Instead, she opted to speak to them just by engaging in meditation. She told them that she would still avenge them, and that though she wasn’t taking on the role of a traditional Xibian woman that she still hoped to make them proud of her. The more she poured out her heart the more the tears poured out. But she wouldn’t give Jorgek the benefit of hearing her cries. In order to stop the tears from hitting her knees, she pressed her palms to her eyes, in the hopes of muffling the sound.

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Keeping our Sanity by Losing our Sanity

I have often told people that I write to keep my sanity, and generally speaking this is true. Writing gives me purpose and direction in life. And yet, by some strange paradox, it also helps me to lose my sanity. Writing is about trying to keep our sanity while losing our sanity.

I think he speaks for all of us writers. Image from Giphy. Property of DC and Fox. All rights reserved. 

A good idea germinates in our minds. We nourish that idea, writing daily so that the roots of our idea may grow into a short story or a novel. All seems to be going well at first. We put our thoughts on paper. Our stress melts away. Then we face writer’s block. We do everything we can to chisel down or to blow to pieces this wall that has formed in our minds. Sometimes it takes years for this block to crumble. At other times we don’t have writer’s block, but we keep rewriting our work. It’s never near completion, and when we think it is we find that such thoughts were premature. What had started out as a form of therapy turns into madness. Never enough, never enough!

So, we write initially because it’s a form of therapy, a stress reducer. Ironically, it becomes stressful. After it becomes stressful, what do we do? We continue the writing process in order to save our sanity. It’s a full circle. In other words, we lose our sanity if we don’t write and we lose our sanity if we do write.

We’re just running around in circles. Image from Giphy. Property of Disney. All rights reserved. 

In the end, it all comes down to balance. There are times we have to write to save our sanity and there are times we have to step away from the keyboard or pen and paper to save it. We writers can be an extreme bunch, just as extreme as any other creative type. One thing many of us have to learn is the importance of moderation. Only through moderation, giving ourselves the proper amount of time to write and the proper amount of time to take a break and engage in our hobbies can we write effectively and keep our sanity.

Then again, maybe losing one’s sanity is a prerequisite for being a writer. History seems to indicate as much.

 

Blood on the Grass, Blood on Paper

Writing is such a powerful form of self-expression. We write for many reasons. We write to express joy, anger, humor, and more often than not, sadness. Life is full of pain and suffering. I had a moment of anguish recently when I was mowing the lawn. One moment I am mowing the grass, the next something long and shiny is flashing about, like a streak of blue lightning. I stop the lawnmower, distraught that I hit a snake. Soon enough, I find out that it’s not a snake, but a legless lizard, an eastern glass one to be precise. I put it in a box with a blanket. I call animal rescue, take a picture of it, and send it to them. The wound is too severe. I can’t save it. For the rest of the evening I am in a deep pit of melancholy over the beautiful animal I accidentally killed.

To this day I wish I hadn’t of mowed the lawn at that particular time. Or I wish I had of seen the eastern glass lizard before I hit him. There is the chance it could have been sick and dying to begin with. But I ask myself, what if he wasn’t? What if he was enjoying the warm sun and the soft grass, his idea of a perfect day in an Eden-like setting? What if he felt joy unmeasurable, a sense of contentment, only to have it destroyed by the apocalypse of not a lawnmower, but a doomsday device that obliterated the vast microcosmic world of my yard?

I didn’t know what to do. I was his unintentional executioner, but I couldn’t purposely be his savior, no matter how hard I tried. So I wrote this poem in the creature’s honor.

Upon blades of grass, you rested, 
a coil of silver water, turquoise under the sun, 
when blades of steel should cut through your joy.

I saw you flop and thrash, 
your blue and silver thrashing like ocean waves during a storm,
a storm that toiled inside. 
I am going to live.

One drop of blood spoke a thousand passions 
of the struggle for life, the appreciation for beauty. 
Your silent scream tore asunder the blockades of the human heart,
rending its fortified walls into rubble.

Silver and blue, a garment rich and pure. 
You stoically fought like the knight you were,
and kept your noble vestige even amongst the crimson.

The trees, the flowers, the grass, the palms, your temple, will always hold you in remembrance.

 

1200px-Easternglass_lizard

An eastern glass lizard. Not the one I accidentally hit in my yard. This image is the property of Wikimedia Commons, taken by NatalieK.

I’m Not Sensitive to Sensitivity Readers

It has come to my attention that there is a new type of editor in town, someone termed a sensitivity reader. What does a sensitivity reader do? Simply put, they review an author’s manuscript to see if there are any problematic representations of different minorities, genders, or sexual orientations. Their goal is to help the author to correctly represent those who they are writing about, so that nothing hurtful or stereotypical may be written.

In theory, I have no problem with this. There is too much hatred in this world, too much oppression. I am in full agreement that many minorities and others have for far too long been mispresented, disenfranchised, and have faced continual bigotry and or racism. I agree that more stories being written in which women, blacks, Mexicans, and so forth are a welcome breath of fresh air. The world is a diverse place and we need that represented in literature. Therefore, with all that said, why do I have a problem with sensitivity readers?

Looking for offense just to find offense.
Hey, if I write something that you deem offensive about another group of people, let me

Property of Giphy

know and I’ll greatly consider changing it if my book hasn’t been published yet or if it already has been published I’ll remember your advice when I write a future book. It’s not my goal to offend different minorities, different genders, and gender preferences and whatnot. However, if you hire someone looking to find offense then they are going to find offense, even when none was intended. This brings up the next point.

Can a sensitivity reader speak for everyone in that group?
It would be easy to write a story that didn’t offend anyone if everyone thought the same. But here are the cold facts, they don’t. Not even individuals within the same group of people will think the same. Let’s look at non-blacks wearing dreds. This is a contentious issue for some. It first came to my attention when I saw a few Youtube videos of blacks saying that non-blacks shouldn’t wear dreds. Before jumping on the bandwagon, I looked up other videos and found just as many blacks counter-arguing that viewpoint, proclaiming just as loudly that anyone can have dreds, even whites. When I asked a bunch of African-Americans in person, most were perplexed that there were some who said non-blacks couldn’t have dreds. Only one had an issue with it.  Or how about the celebration of Cinco De Mayo and the wearing of sombreros? Most of my Hispanic friends are absolutely cool with non-Hispanics celebrating Cinco De Mayo and wearing sombreros. The only thing they asked was that immigrants not be treated cruelly. A more than reasonable request. Let’s also not forget about the row of what happened in Utah, in which a little non-Japanese girl was berated online for having a Japanese tea party for her birthday. Or how about the art museum that was criticized for letting non-Japanese try on a kimono? There were many Japanese, who criticized those who took offense at those who were offended at the little girl’s Japanese tea party and to those who were offended by those non-Japanese trying on a kimono.

By now, the question is inevitably popping up about what this has to do with sensitivity readers and getting feedback from a community you are writing about. The short answer is that both writing about a different culture, race, or group of people, as well as dealing with cultural appropriation issues with fashion, hairstyles, and holidays, all go down to the core of representation of a group of people. Do they like the representation? Just as someone gets a variety of viewpoints from different people in the same group when it comes to cultural appropriation, one is going to get different readers from the same group with different sensitivities from each other. It’s possible to find someone from India who may like how the writer portrays Indians and another who finds it offensive, or a Chinese person who finds the way Chinese are portrayed as problematic, another right on the dot. Therefore, it’s important to remember that….

It’s dangerous to try and please everyone.
I wish it was easy to please everyone. As a writer, I don’t want to offend different

Property of Giphy

religious groups, races, nationalities, or ethnicities. I want all sorts of people to read my books and to love them. But the uncomfortable truth is that I know I am going to accidentally offend someone. Realize that I don’t mean to. Realize that most writers don’t mean to.

However, that doesn’t mean I still won’t ask people in different groups for feedback.
Okay, so I’ve gone off about how I don’t trust sensitivity readers. That doesn’t mean that I still won’t ask different people in races, groups, ethnicities, religions, and genders for input when writing a book. I value input, and I want to be accurate. I just don’t want to hire someone who is looking for offense.

Am I Wrong?
Okay, I said my piece. Now I ask you, my dear reader friends, if I have it wrong? Am I looking at this issue incorrectly? Do you agree or disagree with me? Please explain why, civilly that is, in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Rebirth: Short Story

Orion_nebula

Orion Nebula from Wikimedia Commons. All rights to NASA.

This story is recommended for ages 13 and up for violence, war, and some language.

This short story is dedicated with appreciation to the band Daft Punk, who may have left the seeds for an idea of this story from one of their animated music videos dealing with false memories. 

Reg, the Hygolian Dark Beast, stood among burning rubble of the small outpost of Helitia 5, the bodies of the Tandonians, soldier and civilian alike, old and young with smoldering craters in their bodies caused from high powered plasma blasts from Reg’s P16 rifle, lay amongst the rubble. From the homes school, and places of business destroyed to all of the dead, Reg had a sense of satisfaction. Some would call him a criminal. For what? This was poetic justice against the Tandonians, a race that had wiped out countless civilizations himself. He knew. He had experienced their cruelty.

Reg had only been a seven year-old child, scrawny of limbs, and not the muscle bound warrior he later became, when the Tandonian military fleet had attack his planet Yillus just beyond the KX-12 Asteroid Belt. Reg had been at school that day, reading a history of the inner planets from the computer screen on his desk, when an armored Tandonian squad had burst into the classroom and engaged in slaughter. A Tandonian commander fired a shot at Mr. Elyron, the android teacher. The android’s head exploded, raining bright, blinding hot sparks on Reg and his screaming classmates. Poor Mr. Elyron, the fun-loving android who made education interesting, a member of the faculty who could engage students better than any of the human teachers. Next came his assistant, Ms. Arachna, a squat robot on four wheels, her eight arms flailing as she tried to protect and comfort the kids. All eight arms were shot off, and her memory circuit blown to smithereens. No more would she be around to comfort crying children, or to multitask with her eight arms in helping other teachers with their tasks. It was heartrending. None of that could even match the nightmare of seeing his friends and classmates being picked off one by one, as the Tandorian squad made a game out of seeing how many children they could kill.

Reg had survived by seeking safety under Mr. Elyron desk. All teachers had a stairway below their desk which lead to a shelter in case of attacks. Sadly, the Tandorians had attacked so fast that warning hadn’t been given over the intercom of the school, nor could warning have easily been given. They had uploaded a cloaker onto miniature satellites that hacked into the colony’s computer system, causing a download of the program. This disabled much of the planet’s radars and call systems.

As a boy, Reg could only be thankful that the computerized teacher’s desk was working. Once he slipped down the stairs with a few other student, the computer sealed the alcove of the desk with a thick titanium shield for protection. Reg, and the two other students, who had kept their wits about them when the soldier came crashing in, sat huddled in the basement, forced to listen to the laser canons blasting everything away. That hour had been horrendous. He had heard one of the soldiers ask for a plasma bomb in order to blow the shield off the desk. The soldier was told that none of the troops had plasma bombs on them, and that they would have to go back to the ship to get one. Nonetheless, they had managed blow the shield off without one.

Soon, Reg and his two classmates had been surrounded by six Tandonian soldiers. Reg had thought his life would go out by the burst of a laser beam. But instead of opening fire, the soldiers mocked them. He couldn’t remember what they said. He remembered that they spoke Yillian. He also remembered the basic jest of what they said. Basically, they laughed at him and his remaining classmates, and told them that they would forever live with this image burned in their minds, that the Tandorians were a superior people and that they should best remember that. They then left Reg and his classmates to their fears.

Deliverance had come hours later in the form of the armed Yillian forces. A group of them, made up of both humans and robots alike, had slowly repelled the Tandonian forces, but at great losses to themselves. They finally found Reg and his two remaining classmates in the shelter under the desk. His remaining classmates were bawling loudly, but not him. Reg was too in shock to make a sound.

Reg’s shock didn’t let up as the armed forces flew him to an adoption center. He had lost his parents. All around him the city had been a charred wasteland, buildings burning, bullet transportation tubes demolished, a few remaining survivors rummaging through the wreckage. Those survivors had been left alive as a warning that they must bow to Tandonian rule. And through it all, he was numb, but not numb enough that he hadn’t made a promise to himself. He would enlist in the Yillian fringe group the Nova Freedom Fighters, and he would punish the Tandonians so that no other innocent people might have to suffer under these animals.

Hence Reg’s current situation. Mercy by leaving some alive? It certainly hadn’t been merciful to him, now stuck with memories of the parents he had lost. If anything Reg was being merciful by killing everyone so none had memories of pain for the rest of their lives. If anything, Reg wasn’t a monster. He was a saint.

Yet, he fought like a beast, like one of those Hygolian beasts on the dark planet Zoron. The Hygolians were a giant feline-like creature who had evolved over the years when the sun’s planet had slowly dimmed into a red dwarf. These feline aliens could rip the biggest animals to shreds in a matter of seconds. Reg took out a regiment of Tandonion soldiers in a matter of seconds on his very first mission with the Nova Freedom Fighters. He was so effective at killing that the Freedom Fighters had given him the name Hygolian Dark Beast. They had also learned he worked better alone, so they only gave him mission orders of outposts to take out, letting him do the rest.

Giving one last look of satisfaction over his handiwork, Reg made his way back to his ship, a Stealth Buntera 84. He would leave the wreckage of this outpost behind, a grim reminder to the Tandonians that the Yills were not to be messed with.

In the comfort of his cockpit, he started pressing the buttons to activate the thrusters. A low hum came from the back. And then it droned off. This wasn’t right. There should have been a roaring fire coming from his engine, propelling him 25,000 miles per hour to enter orbit. Instead the system that had activated his thrusters had been shut down.

“Damn it!” he slammed his fist against the panel of brightly lit neon colors.

Breathing deeply, he reminded himself that now was not the time to panic.

“Computer, what the hell’s preventing lift off?” he asked.

Instantly a hologram came up on his computer screen, hovering a little below eye level in front of him, of three Tandonian battle cruisers. The large, bulky ships were on three corners, a hundred feet in distance, vertical of each other.

“What else can you tell me?” he asked the computer.

Instead of directly answering him in speech, the computer presented a hologram of the lowest ship. His reading indicated that a signal had been sent to his ship, disabling his drive. No matter, he could possibly override it.

That’s when it began to grow hot and bright. Crap! There was only one reason that such a change in light and temperature was happening. He had to get out of his ship unless he wanted to fry.

In a panic, he tumbled out of his escape hatch. Circling him in a hundred foot circle was a plasma force field. The Tandonian fleet could have easily used a magnetic force field instead, but no, they were going all out with a plasma one. The dome of plasma rose high, an enclosure of burning purple and pink, blocking out ships and any type of view. The temperature was hot, so hot. Reg felt like he was about to pass out and there was nothing he could do about it.

He couldn’t send out a distress call to the Nova Freedom Fighters, or anyone for that matter. The plasma force field jammed all communications. By now it would have neutralized his other ship functions as well.

Reg fell to the ground, his fist clenched. He pounded the earth, cursing as beads of sweat from both the heat and his stress rolled and dripped off his body. The bastards had got him. The murderers had conquered him. Damn them all!

 

Dr. Yolix awoke on Space Station Pulsar 1, excited about the news. They had caught him, the Beast of the Dark, Nova Freedom Fighter’s champion soldier, a man so brutal and skilled that he had to work solo from the group. This was good news to wake up to indeed.

The doctor looked out the window to see the stars spin by, indication that the station was still spinning to create artificial gravity. This was a good thing. There was nothing as obnoxious as taking a shower in freefall, where one had to hang onto a handle unless one wanted to float, with water droplets floating in every which direction, but hardly hitting the bather. It had happened to Yolix once when the gravitational spin malfunctioned. It was awful. Aside from his shower being ruined, he had to float around for his notes. Not something he wanted to live again. There was one chamber in the middle of the station, a sphere attached by four force-field magnetic tubes leading from the four directions of the ring which encircled it, that was zero gravity. The doctor often used that sphere to sooth patients. The weightlessness made them feel like children again, and helped calm their minds. Maybe he would use that room on the Hygolian Beast of the Dark.

After taking a shower, the doctor rode the horizontal walkway down to his lab, it slowing down the closer he got. The door slid open for him, and strapped to a reclining chair, safely behind a tube of glass, was the Hygolian Beast of the Dark. Even with all those safety mechanics in place, Nova Freedom Fighter’s greatest killer still looked menacing. He was eyeing Yolix with eyes thirsting for blood and he was struggling in his restraints.

“Let me the hell out of here, you bastard!” came his voice muffled from behind the tube. “I’ll blow a hole in you! Cut where the hole is, skin you, and wear it if I don’t pull your intestines out and choke you with them first.”

“He certainly is spirited, but I wouldn’t call him stoic,” said Commander Kester, the man who had helped bring the Beast in. He was standing by the tube that restrained the man who had slaughtered a colony and thousands of others throughout the system.

On the other end of the lab was Dr. Yolix’s assistant, Nesha Benu, feeding and monitoring two headed purple slug worms from the Gydo moon. He could see their suction cupped bodies, much like the suction cups of an octopus’s tentacle, let go of the sides of the terrarrium when she fed them rodents from their home-world. These slugs ate their prey alive. Cold killers, much like the Beast who glared at him from behind the tube.

“Mark my words,” the Beast said, “I’m going to find a way out and I’m going to inflict painful torture on you until you die like the worm you are. You almost fried me in a plasma force field.”

“Hello, Reg,” Dr. Yolix smiled at him.

“Finally, after all that searching, after all those chases through deep space, after all those innocents killed, we got the bastard,” sighed Commander Kester, absolutely exhausted.

“And I thank you for it,” nodded Dr. Yolix, still staring at to who many called the Hygolian Dark Beast but to him who was just Reg. Reg acknowledged him by baring his teeth. “Would you like a drink, Commander, to sooth your nerves?” the doctor turned his attention to Kester.

“Nah. I’ll be fine. Don’t forget, we have a meeting with the council soon. You are going to have a hell of a time convincing them to keep this monster alive. I know I already want to murder him. The point is, you can’t miss this council or they will kill him.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” said Yolix. “Ms. Benu,” he called to his assistance. She jogged over, a young woman wearing a skirt and a lab coat, her dark hair braided in the latest Tandonian fashion. “Will you be okay with our guest?”

“Don’t worry about me,” his assistant reassured him. “If he breaks out, the guns will activate and so will the XP-16s.”

The doctor nodded in approval, especially content with the knowledge that the XP-16s, heavy armored robotic armed guards with multiple laser and plasma canons, would come into play.

“Yes, but let’s not rest on our laurels,” protested the Commander. “What if some Nova rebels are in the vicinity?”

Yolix smiled with genuine warmth and trust at Kester. “Commander, I don’t doubt that you have already thought of this and have put all of the proper security in place.”

“Yes, but”…. He trailed off. “Yes, you’re right. I’m just a little damned stressed, that’s all.”

“You sons of bitches!” shouted Reg. “It’s not my fault I’m here! It’s yours!”

“Yes, but of course you’re right,” the doctor touched the tube gently as if he were offering comfort to the killer. “It’s not your fault.” In truth, he had to try not to laugh. He could understand everything Reg was saying because of the translating system. But translating systems couldn’t synchronize mouth movements to words, so it was comical to see the killer of colonies moving his lips like a badly dubbed movie.

“Doctor, I think it might be wise to inject the patient with some toxin to make him hallucinate about nice things,” Benu offered. “We have gotten the narcotic in from those new flowers from Cypress IV.”

“Not a bad idea,” said Yolix. “You may proceed.”

And from the safety of the other end of the tube, Benu pressed a button on her handheld control tablet, causing a mechanical arm with a needle on the end to go down the tube and inject the hallucinogen into Reg.

 

The conference hall seemed small, only able to sit twenty people at the max, but it didn’t need to be huge. Many at the conference were communicating via satellite image, their holograms appearing upon the stage when they had something to say. Until then, a large screen was in the background, each showing the face of a different leader in government, the military, or the sciences.

Commander Kester was on the stage in the flesh, and Dr. Yolix was sitting upon one of the chairs, the small cameras in the room capturing his image for those on different planets and space stations.

Still, there was someone of great importance missing. Someone who would take the trip of light-speed for six months to get here. Someone who was of such importance that she didn’t have to, nor shouldn’t have to, take that much time out of her life. Yet she had been promised that the Beast would be caught, that the Tandonian Galactic Navel Fleet had put their best minds and computers together to pinpoint the when and the where of the Beast’s next attack, and that they would have him in this certain time frame, the same time frame it would take her to come to Space Station Pulsar 1.

Arrive she did at the last minute. Governess Vangana walked gracefully into the conference room, her long silver outer-robe and her white inner-robe brushing against the floor. Her pale skin like the moon, her dark hair flowing down her back like chocolate, her chin pinched and her nose straight, complimenting her deep brown eyes, made her beautiful and regal. Even Yolix, a middle aged man, had to admit he was taken with her. By her side were her two armed guards. Both Yolix and Kester stood at attention, as did those on the computer monitors. She lifted up her hand indicating that they should all be seated. The Commander, in a sign of respect, left the stage, presenting it to her. She walked up to the podium where there was a symbol of the star of the Tandonian Empire. The star matched the one emblazoned on the front of her white robe. It was a star with deep significance, signifying the Tandonian alliance with the United Galaxy.

“Gentlemen, I’m sure you know why we are all here,” she said, her voice being translated solar system wide to the different languages spoken.

This time Yolix bit his tongue so as not to laugh. He knew that everyone else was trying to also. Yes, the interstellar translator may have made mouth movement look off, but one still had to show a sign of decorum and grace in front of the Governess.

“Many of you have suffered over the continued raids and killings over the fringe group the Nova Freedom Fighters,” continued Governess Vangana. “One member in particular, the Hygolian Beast of the Dark, who I shall just call the Beast, has been their most successful soldier. But despite all our pain and suffering, the peoples of the United Galaxy have stuck together, and with hope in their hearts, burning brighter than any star, have overcome these obstacles and kept the darkness of space alive with hope.

“We are here to listen to a proposal. Most of you are familiar with the name Dr. Yolix. After all, his name is spoken far and wide through each of the quadrants in praise of his revolutionary breakthroughs in psychiatric medicine. He is a man who has been able to rehabilitate the most hardened of criminals.”

There was angry shouting from all the leaders on the screens.

“Please,” said the Governess, putting her hands up. “I urge that we all listen to the doctor’s proposal before we decide if the Beast is to be terminated or rehabilitated.

“Dr. Yolix, do you have anything to say?” the Governess had turned her attention to him.

The doctor just smiled gently, relaxing into his chair. “Please, Governess, they have a right to express their concerns and vent their frustrations. They have a right to speak just as much as I. I say we give whoever wants to the right to vent first.”

“That will take time,” said the Governess.

“Is your Grace in any hurry?” he asked humbly.

Vangana bit her lip. “No, I suppose not. Whoever wishes to express grievances may do so.”

A stream of leaders and scientists, one after another, appeared in holographic succession in the conference room. Each one went on a long tirade about the brutality of the Beast, of the homes he destroyed, the innocents he killed. Some spoke pragmatically, others in a rage, while some even broke down in tears over the losses they faced. Many even made the argument that executing the Beast would send a sharp message to the Nova Freedom Fighters that their terrorist actions would not be tolerated, and that each and every member would be obliterated from the galaxy. These grievances seemed to stretch as far as the known universe with no end in sight.

There came a time that the Governess had to put a stop to it. “I respect everyone’s feelings over the issue, but we need to address our concerns to Dr. Yolix.”

“I thank you, your Grace,” said the doctor, getting out his seat and making his way to the podium. “I understand that that was a lot to take in, but I found it imperative that many unleash their grievances as possible.”

“You’re kidding me, damn it!” spoke up Commander Kester. “I haven’t witnessed so much damn emotion and anguish since I was on the killing fields of Vybon. Excuse the language, your Grace,” he added, embarrassed when he realized that he had forgotten he was in the company of the Governess of the Tandonia.

“Be at ease, Commander,” Vangana reassured him.

“I apologize,” said Yolix. “But believe me when I say that this was necessary. One of the most important aspects of humanity is to be listened to, to feel validated. The human ego is a powerful, and yet a fragile thing, and it must be nourished if we want a positive society. That means everyone gets a chance to speak, or in this case at least as many people as possible.

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, you know my proposal. Now, I should warn you that as a doctor and a scientist, I have a bad habit of speaking in technical terms. I’ll try to spare you the monotony of trying decipher a language that the interstellar translators can’t possibly hope to translate, and present my ideas and findings in plain everyday language. If I get too technical in my terminology, or I should say speech, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

“Anyway,” he clapped a fist in his hand, “I want to rehabilitate the Hygolian Dark Beast by changing his memories.”

“And what would you change them to?” said one of the leaders, his holographic image appearing briefly in the council room before going out like a flame.

“Something pleasant, something so that he doesn’t have to remember the pain of his past or the pain that he has now caused.”

The image of a military leader appeared. “And why should we grant him that respite? He’s a terrorist, a part of a terrorist organization.”

“Is he? Or is he too mentally ill to be held accountable?”

Angry murmurs resonated on the video screens, until Vangana said, “Interesting theory, Dr. Yolix. But from what basis do you go on?”

“The Beast isn’t the real terrorist in this case, but the Nova Freedom Fighters,” promulgated Yolix boldly.

“The Beast joined them,” rejoined another leader.

“Not on his own accord. The Hygolian Dark Beast’s real name is Reg Tynen, and he was only a young boy when he was kidnapped and then given false memories.”

“False memories? Did I hear you right?” said the Governess.

“Your hearing is just fine, your Grace. You see, Reg thinks he’s a Yillian.”

There were murmurs of confusion.

“Confused?” the doctor cocked an eyebrow. “Well, have any of you ever heard of the planet Yill? Of course you haven’t. It doesn’t exist. And yet, he claims he’s from that planet.”

“Did he tell you as much?”

“He didn’t tell me a thing, your Grace, except some choice swear words and issuing some threats. It was when he was unconscious that I was able to extract his memory. A memory of a planet that never existed, of a childhood that never was, of traumatic events that never happened. In short, his mind was altered by the terrorist group Nova Freedom Fighters themselves.”

“That’s a bold statement. Where did you get this information?”

Yolix took a deep breath. “That’s a long story. Can I have a glass of water before I proceed? I think I might need it. Ah, I’m sure I can get by. Well, you have to realize that the brain, in many ways, is like a computer and it functions by whatever memory is loaded onto it. It’s said that the mind is a blank slate at birth, and that ideas are gained empirically, or one could say knowledge is gained a posteriori instead of a priori.”

“So much for speaking in layman’s terms,” mumbled Kester. But Yolix didn’t hear him. He was too enraptured in a state of scientific and philosophical ecstasy.

“As I was saying, experiences are like data uploaded into our personal computers, in this case, the brain. Now, memory is stored all throughout the cortex, but long term memory is a function primarily of the hippocampus. If there is a soul, a ghost in the machine, as many philosophers have examined, then what place would be cozier than the hippocampus where emotions and memories comingle?

“We needn’t dwell on the psychological benefits or detriments depending on how the individual is raised. Numerous studies have shown how parents can rewrite the brains of their children, molding them a certain way. The Nova terrorists know that the best way to strike us is through the family unite, so why not capture children and brainwash them to their cause.

“And when did this happened?” asked a holographic image of a fellow scientist.

“It’s been happening for a long time,” said Kester. “Occasionally a child goes missing aboard a freighter. Where do you think they go?”

“To a terrorist cell?!”

“Well, half of them anyway. As everyone knows, it’s hard to detect a member of the cell. They are humans, just like us, with no DNA differences. And they have their ways of kidnapping children. We need not go into it.”

“We had suspicions,” said Vangana slowly. “But,”….

“But you didn’t want to even think that it was happening,” interjected Kester. “And I don’t blame you, your Grace. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but it’s true. Our intelligence was able to pick up the information by sending in a spy satellite, built to look like a Nova satellite, into their territory. That’s why we have all the information on the missing children, including who is now called the Hygolian Dark Beast.”

“But why our children?”

Kester sighed heavily. “It pains me to say it, but why not our children. We lose some who could grow up to e potential soldiers and they gain some more. Nova is tricky. They don’t always come in with guns blazing, but sometimes like our next door neighbors. What better way to deplete us than by stealing the young and killing the old.”

“Exactly,” said Dr. Yolix. “A young mind is still absorbing its surroundings.”

“Anyway,” continued the commander, “we learned about Reg from the files that intelligence hacked into. As previous stated by Dr. Yolix, Reg wasn’t born on Yill. He was born on Tandon to from what we can tell were very loving parents. It was on a trip from the belt to G19 that Mr. and Mrs. Tynen reported their son lost on the freighter.”

“And you mean to say that the computer systems couldn’t find him?” said another commander indignantly via hologram.

“They could, but the captain wouldn’t. We have since found out that a good half of that crew were Nova members.” There were gasps and heated talk as Kester put his hand up for silence. “Rest assured they have been dealt with most harshly. But the damage was done. The boy was taken to one of their facilities and changed.”

“I prefer the term reprogrammed,” said Dr. Yolix. “You see, they drugged him so that he would forget his childhood. There are serums that do this. Next came the matter of reconditioning him. I’m afraid to say that it’s more than likely that physical abuse was heaped on Reg to turn him into the monster that he became. There’s no doubt that through constant beatings and other acts of torture, that they reprogrammed Reg to have a fight or flight response. Of course, it would be foolish to say that they inflicted harm without giving him the illusion of love. Loyalties have to lie somewhere or they’d have a rogue on their hands.

“The reprogramming to make him forget his real parents was done via hologram and serum. I have no doubt that they put him in a holographic chamber, where they forced him to view life-like holograms of death and destruction. Before he was reconditioned, he would be injected with a serum to make him more susceptible to believing what he was seeing. There are many different plants, particularly from the phyndelium family, on Cypress IV. One of the most conducive ones for the rewiring of neurons is from the genus Teyroniotisphats, or, in simpler terms, the lady’s beguilement. That’s right, the lady’s beguilement, a beautiful pink, orange, and yellow flower that has a potent spore rendering the victim susceptible to advice as well as causing the victim to forget memories of his past while gaining new ones. When such advice is mixed with holographic images, well, those neurons in the brain create an image of a false reality.”

There was a silence before Dr. Yolix proceeded. “Picture this. Reg’s captors probably beat him and then told him lies about what happened after injecting him with the serum from the lady’s beguilement. They told him that he had witnessed his fictional planet be attacked by us, and then they ushered him to the holographic chamber to further cement these false memories. As time passed, they slowly stopped beating him and slowly started to show him love and consideration, if you call these false emotions such. That way, he’d be hardened, but still have a family he could trust and follow. He couldn’t help but lash out.”

“Are you saying that he had no agency of his own?” asked a diplomat.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” the doctor said, scratching his chin. “Memories certainly help with our decision making, but I certainly wouldn’t say that they dictate our every action like the laws of physics. I’m not a determinist, much less a hard one. But nonetheless, he has been wronged. And we have the opportunity to make it right. I have the opportunity to make it right”

“And yet you don’t want to restore his memories, but give him new ones, you said?” asked the Governess.

“That is your correct, your grace. He lost his parents years ago. I don’t want to bring him any more pain. I feel like the truth would be unethical, just as I feel it would be unethical for him to keep these current memories. I propose that we give him a new set of memories. While doing so, maybe we can even program certain skills within him so he can engage in a trade when he’s rehabilitated.”

“Who the hell are you to withhold his birthright from him!” someone spoke up.

“The logical question is who are we to return pain upon pain?” Dr. Yolix pointed out pragmatically.

“Who the hell are you to forget about those who suffered under his hands!” spoke out another.

“Such conflicting emotions!” said the doctor. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, you can punish me when this is all over. You see, I feel partly responsible for what happened.”

“You? Whatever for?” the Governess asked.

“Because Reg’s psychological malfunctions are because of me.”

Audible gasps flowed into the conference center in unison.

“It’s true,” said Yolix sadly. “I had been studying neuro-pathways, the cortex, the hippocampus, innate ideas, empirical ideas, how human thought is formed, and the effects narcotics can have on it, for over a decade. It was my goal, my foolish ambition, to change the minds of captured terrorists and then to send them to war against their own. Only now can I see how I let my research and discovery blind me to morality. Yet, it took a crisis for that to happen. It took the Nova cell hacking into my database and retrieving my studies.”

He looked down on the podium, ashamed to meet the eyes of those around him. It took Vangana speaking up to break him of his ruminations over morality.

“Be that as it may, your heart was in the right place,” she said. “We have been at war with Nova for so many years now, fighting for our very survival. If anyone wants to indict you, you will have me by your side. Reg, as you call him, wasn’t the first monster. They’d been creating monsters from before they stole your studies.”

“I’m not nearly as sympathetic,” said one of the governors of the outer planets. “That bastard has helped create a monster by his carelessness. I say vaporize him.”

“You shall do no such thing, Governor Jyot,” said the governess in an even tone. “Do I need to remind you of the hundreds of men you lost by trying to infiltrate Nova territory?”

Jyot fumed, but said no more.

“You’re too kind,” Yolix looked at Vangana, gratitude in his eyes. “But science without morality is empty. I deserve punishment. But first I want to make it right.”

“I object,” said Kester firmly. “You have insinuated enough that the drugs along with the hologram didn’t take away free agency, but only made him more likely to follow bad advice. If that’s the case, the Hygolian Dark Beast is still guilty, and as such must pay for his crimes against the Tandonians, our people.”

“Yes, he still had freewill, Commander. But he didn’t have anything else to go on but the false memories. How is executing him justice? He’s a victim. A victim of my carelessness and the rage of a terrorist cell. I plead for mercy. I can change him. It’s the only way I can redeem him and myself.”

“And I say that this is a terrible idea. What message do we send to Nova if we are lenient?”

“The message we send is that we are not like them, that we don’t resort to their tactics,” cut in Vangana. “I side with the doctor in this matter. Reg has been punished enough by being ripped from his parents and given false memories. Why should we punish him more?”

In the end it was decided that the Hygolian Dark Beast would be rehabilitated under Dr. Yolix’s care. It didn’t take long to do so. Using the same process that the terrorists had used, the same process that the doctor had initially conceived before they stole it, the doctor was able to recondition Reg in just a little under a year. New memories were given to Reg, memories of a blissful life on Tandonia, growing up with his father, Dr. Yolix and his mother Nesha Benu, before they moved to the space station. There had been some objection to allowing Yolix to assume the role of Reg’s father and his assistant to play the part of his mother, but the doctor assured those skeptical that it was all for the best, seeing as Reg was his responsibility. After all the holograms, the serums, and the lies told to Reg, he was no longer a dark beast of Hygolia, but a well-rounded, intelligent, and civil member of society, working as welder on the station.

“Hey, dad, how are you today?” Reg would ask the doctor when passing by him in the halls.

“I’m fine, thank you, son. Are we going to have dinner tonight?”

“That should be doable.”

“Very good! See you at eight hundred hours, son?”

“Sure thing.”

Life went on like this for a couple of years. It all went well until a figure stepped out from the shadows of the doctor’s quarters.

“Dr. Yolix,” said a small, lanky figure. Following from the shadows after him was tall, broad and imposing figure. Both of them wore Tandonian security uniforms, but something seemed very wrong about the whole situation.

“How did you two get in here?” the doctor asked, startled and afraid. “You two aren’t officers. Explain yourselves!”

“Explain ourselves we will,” said the short one grinning. “After all, we have much to explain.” He opened the vest of his security uniform slightly, revealing hidden under it the exploding star, the symbol of the Nova Freedom Fighters.

Yolix ran towards the door, but the taller and heavier Nova member grabbed and constrained him.

“Easy now,” said the short and lanky one. “We’re not going to hurt you. We’re here to bring you home, Dr. Yolix, or should I say Dr. Tanvon?”

“My name’s not Tanvon.”

“But of course! These Tandonians have erased your memory and replaced it with another one. They even made you think that you created the formula. Well, you didn’t. These Tandonians stole it from us and stole you from us. They have manipulated your memory, making you think that you are someone you aren’t.”

“Lies!” protested Yolix. “What would they have to gain by doing that?”

“A brilliant scientists of course. Sadly, you have forgotten how brilliant you were with Nova.”

“I have never been a part of Nova. You guys are heartless monsters, stealing children away to train as soldiers.”

Both of his captors laughed.

“Are we?” the small one continued. “Or is that just a false memory that the Tandonians and all their allies of the United Galaxy have implanted in you? Obviously they have erased your memory about you seeing your planet conquered and made to pay tribute to an empire that murders those who disagree with the governess. Your memories of different people being sold into slavery throughout Tandonia and the rest of the planets of the United Galaxy have been repressed. Instead, you were given a false memory of growing up on Tandonia, living a peaceful life among friends and family, studying at a university to become a scientist, when in reality you come from Helox. It was on Helox that your desire to become a scientist was made manifest because you believed that science could right wrongs, wrongs you personally witnessed at the hands of a corrupt empire, who wrongly accused Nova of being terrorists.”

“It’s not true,” spat Yolix. But in his mind was some doubt.

“Oh, but it is. You saw first-hand how brutal this so-called United Galaxy was run. How does one become united? Certainly not by peace but by force. You were a witness of that force and you vowed to fight against it. You developed some good weaponry for us and some efficient life support systems in our asteroid bases. You were very valuable. No wonder the Tandonians stole you from us.”

“I don’t believe, I don’t”…. But the doctor couldn’t finish that sentence. In truth, he didn’t know what he believed anymore.

“Don’t worry, doctor,” the small Nova officer put a hand on his shoulder in a gesture of comfort. “We will have you back to normal in no time.”

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Microsoft Word Woes

I often wonder why many programs can’t be written for the layman. I have spent most of my evening trying to figure out how to format the collection of short stories I’m working on with headers. Simple enough with Microsoft Word, right? Wrong!

Oh, to put in one header, that’s easy. No problem. To put in two alternative headers, one

Enough to make me scream. Image from GIPHY. Copyright NBC’s The Office. 

even header, one odd, I eventually figured that out with some online tutorials. But to keep my headers from going onto the title page, the content page, and the dedication page is another matter entirely. To give me more grief is that I can’t figure out how to give each of my short stories a different title for the header. In other words, on every odd or even page, I have the same title from my same short story covering my other short stories.

I look at the tutorials on Youtube. They mention putting in page breaks. Here’s the kicker. It still doesn’t fix my header problems. I am still stuck with the same headers.

I ask myself, am I just stupid? But then I see other people online ranting on Youtube and forums about how much they hate Microsoft Word, about how needlessly difficult it is to use. Some users are even so angry that they write out their frustrations in a stream of profanity. I can’t say that I blame them. Maybe we are all stupid or maybe Microsoft has made Word just too hard to use. Who knows?

Still, I ask why can’t it be easier? When clicking on header, why not have a box come down giving the writers an option? In this box could be a set of options (more option than one can be highlighted)  to choose from with the choices of
1. Enter individual headers manually
2. Start headers on a certain page number
3. End headers on a certain page number
4. Start new headers on a certain page number

Okay. So maybe it’s not perfect. But it makes a lot more sense to me than the way Word is currently set up. Because the way it’s set up has caused many people to rant and rave. I feel angry. I feel like all my time this evening was wasted trying to figure it out, only to be unsuccessful. This further means that I will be going into work angry tomorrow. Though I won’t be showing my anger outwardly, I will be fuming inside, feeling so far away from my goal of self-publication.

Screw you Microsoft and your Word program.

Boy, am I irate! Image from GIPHY. Copyright from Disney/Pixar. 

The Muse pt 2/3

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Veil_(1898)

William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The Veil. Public Domain of the United States. Wikimedia Commons.

Renee Roux was frustrated as he paced about in his studio. He was commissioned to do a painting of Michel, one of the dukes, by his estate just outside of Nice. Though it was a beautiful estate and the duke was a regal specimen in terms of looks, Renee just couldn’t find the inspiration, and when inspiration couldn’t be found, he paced in his studio, a mess of a room with paint stained upon pallets, unfinished paintings stacked upon one another, and rough charcoal sketches on paper strewn everywhere.

Part of the problem was he didn’t want to paint the duke. Michel was such an ugly man. By ugly it didn’t have so much to do with the duke’s physical appearance as it did his spiritual. The man was spiritually devoid of goodness, and yet he had the audacity to commission Renee to paint him in a positive light, in which he radiated generosity. The duke had a hard enough time wearing such a paper-thin façade that it was unreasonable to think that any sane artist could lie about him any further with painting.

And yet, wasn’t that what artists did? Were they not the biggest liars of all? It was an artist’s job to embellish, to stretch, or discard the truth. And yet, Renee found he couldn’t do it. And it didn’t stop with the duke. Renee had lost the ability to paint people in general. Everyone was just so petty, so mean, so self-centered. His disdain for people was such that a month ago when a physically beautiful farm girl, whom all the men loved, offered to pose for him, he turned her down when he found out that she beat her younger sister.

Yet, he needed the money to live, and the duke offered plenty.

Renee’s pacing was interrupted when he heard a knock on his door. He grumbled as he opened it. A young woman with dark hair and brown eyes stood before him. She wore a beautiful white dress, puffed out from a crinoline underneath, giving the illusion that she was wearing large white rose petals. Upon her head she wore a wreath of white flowers.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Jovanna Acquarone,” she spoke in an Italian accent. “This is the studio of Renee Roux, is it not?” She peaked inside.

“It is, but I’m afraid I’m too busy to accommodate you at the moment.”

“Oh please,” she begged, stepping in before he could protest. “I promise I shall only take but a moment.”  Rudely, she looked through his stacked portraits and drawings, messing up the order.

“Would you stop that!” he shouted. “I have everything in order for a reason.”

“Of course you do,” she smiled. “Many people just see a mess in your studio, but your mess has order. Is that not what artists do? Create order out of chaos? Do they not paint to give meaning to life?”

“I paint because I feel close to God when I do so.”

“And what’s your current project?” she asked while taking a seat.

“To paint a portrait of the grand duke, but I certainly can’t paint it with you bothering me.”

“Nor can you paint it when you are busy pacing back and forth,” she pointed out. “And I might add, it’s a little hard to paint without a subject, unless you have a keen memory.”

“Is there anything else?” He was irritated that she just didn’t get the clue.

“Actually, there is. I’m wondering why you insist on painting what doesn’t interest you.”

“You don’t know what interests me and what doesn’t!” he barked at her.

“Oh, but I do! I can see it in your eyes. They tell me that you’re bored and that you want so much more. You want to create art for the sake of art, not primarily for the sake of a livelihood. The eyes, they tell us more than the tongue could ever hope to. The tongue is full of beguilement, the eyes are full of honesty.”

“What do you expect me to do, you silly woman!?” Renee growled, his face flushed red with anger.

“You can stop stressing, and take a respite,” she said in a matter of fact tone. “I’m about to head to a café nearby for tea. Then I’m thinking about going to the countryside, not far from the vineyard.”

Renee’s anger at being interrupted was quickly dying. There was a beauty to this woman, and even though she was gifted with her mild olive complexion, her dark hair, and her Italian accent, there was more than just physical traits. It was her personality. She wasn’t bound in chains to the notion of proper decorum, but was rather like a horse who had broken from a stall to run free.

“Are you asking me to join you?”

“But of course,” Jovanna smiled. “I have always loved your art.” She paused to look at a large painting he did of a lake nestled in the mountains with a cottage by it. “You say that painting helps bring you close to God. Well, the beauty of your brush strokes upon the canvas, the way they form trees, lush and green, and stunning sunsets illuminating mountains, makes me feel close to God.”

“You really like my work?” he asked.

“But of course. Though I’m from Naples, Italy, I once traveled all the way from home to see your work exhibited in a gallery in Madrid Spain.”

The artist looked at her with a newfound respect. “I guess a respite would be good for my soul,” he said. “Very well, Mademoiselle, I’ll escort you to whatever café you have in mind and then to the countryside.”

“And I shall be honored,” said Jovanna, extending an arm for him to take.

Together, they chose to relax at the outdoor patio of the Grain de Raisin Rouge, a charming café near a channel of water. Renee was drinking from a cup of coffee, and Jovanna from a cup of tea. Children were playing games nearby, as adults went on their way, holding parasols, and reading the papers. Not far from the café was a fountain with carvings of sirens upon a rock, pouring out water from shell horns. Lovers sat together around the fountain while children dangled their feet in the water. A few old men had set up tables nearby to play chess.

“What made you choose to be an artist?” asked Jovanna after taking a sip of her tea.

“I don’t think I chose,” said Renee. “I think the calling chose me. My interest started when I was a boy, when my father took me to an art exhibition. You see, I saw so much strife growing up. My family was at war with another family. It had to do with familial honor or some sort of nonsense due to some conceived insult committed years ago against my family. At first, it was just petty squabbles, stealing property from one another, and an occasional fistfight.”

Rene sighed, wondering if he’d be able to continue his story, but he pushed on.  “When I was a youth, I met another youth from the rival family one day when I was in a gallery. We had been admiring the same painting. We struck up a conversation about it. I soon learned that he was the son of the rival family. But by then it didn’t matter. Pierre and I had become fast friends. We’d go to opera houses together, look at the art in the galleries, and just talk about life in general, from the complex subjects to the more simplistic things that teenage boys like to talk about, such as girls. We formed a bond. Then my father found out. In a rage, he beat Pierre to death. I then lost my father. He was executed for his crime. I ended up losing two people I loved, my friend and my father.”

“So you chose painting as a way to escape from the pain,” said Jovanna, touching Renee’s hand understandingly.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Renee. “There is so much suffering in the world that I find joy in painting an idyllic one. In a way, I try to paint a world that I think God would love. Some artists paint grim scenes of death and suffering. They say it helps us deal with reality, and to an extent, I agree with them. But I personally want to create art to elevate peoples’ minds to a higher level of joy.”

“You prove my point,” Jovanna looked at him thoughtfully. “I see sadness in your eyes, even after having mentioned that it brings you joy. Does art no longer serve its purpose? I would feign think not. Rather, I think that you are so busy working on commissions that you aren’t following your heart with your work anymore.”

Renee nodded, knowing what she said was true.

“Tell me,” she said, “what do you like to paint? Granted, I’ve seen your art, but I want you to put it in your own words.”

“I like to paint pictures of flowers in a spring field, or of brooks of rushing water, of farmlands with fields of cows and horses.” He felt excitement bubbling up within him. “I like painting the beautiful churches in Arles, or in Paris, with their magnificent steeples. I love painting what makes me feel edified.” He sighed. “Not stuffy old dukes at their estates. Besides, the duke is a vain man, cruel and callous to the poor, and anyone he finds beneath him. He’s also a violent man, making sure thieves are whipped until they are near dead He’s a man, though who’s never been in battle, still revels in war.”

“Then why paint him?”

“Because I have to earn a living and he pays well. Besides, it’s not just the duke. I have found that people are not worth my time to paint. My art is to bring out beauty, and I can’t see beauty in people anymore. Everyone is fallen, everyone is rotten. People are just so ugly. I just can’t seem to see beauty in them anymore.”

“Not even a newborn child?” she asked.

“That child could grow up to be a tyrant.”

“Could be, but doesn’t have to. I believe we are born innocent. That God made us innocent. Do you not, Renee?”

“I’d like to think that,” the artist nodded, “but I’m skeptical. I just want to paint the countryside.”

“And you should paint those subjects,” said Jovanna encouragingly. “Because from what I can tell, you are in a cage. I had to leave my cage at one time.”

“You did?”

“Oh yes. I was to be wed to a rich man in Rome. But I didn’t love him. You see, I originally come from a wealthy family where decorum was drilled into me. So many rules, so many regulations. Though I may have grown up in a villa of gardens, elegant dining rooms, and with bedrooms full of king size beds and fine draperies, and though we lived near the sea, I still felt as though I were in a cage.”

“I had no idea that luxury could be a burden.”

“Oh, it most certainly can! My parents seemed more concerned about social status and money than they did about me. Each time they corrected me, it was more to help them avoid humiliation in the eyes of others, rather than actually caring for me. In fact, they hardly ever associated with me. My greatest company was the maid.”

“That does sound like a horrible life,” nodded Renee.

“Maybe so, but that changed soon enough.”

“How so?”

“I first saw your work,” Jovanna said excitedly, “when they were exhibiting it at a local gallery in Naples. I fell in love with it. It was your work that eventually made me decide to leave my parents, and to travel across Europe.”

Renee dropped his cup of coffee, spilling it on the clean, white linen. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Thank you works.”

“Thank you, then.”

“Now, I don’t know about you, but as lovely as this café is, I could certainly do for a stroll out in the countryside,” she said putting her tea aside. “Who knows? Maybe your spark of inspiration will be rekindled again.”

Renee escorted Jovanna to the vineyard and the abandoned chateau out in the countryside, which was a short distance away from his studio and the café. The chateau was run-down, but even with the caved-in roof, and the crumbling walls, it still retained a sense of elegance with the twisted gate that enclosed it. Grapevines were growing wild and Jovanna was eager to pick some fruit off the vines.

“I think that can be arranged,” the artist said. “The chateau has been reclaimed by nature.”

Renee and Jovanna walked along the rows of grapevines, sampling the fruit that tasted liked spring and summer.

“Look,” she said putting a cluster of grapes above his right earlobe. “You now have the appearance of a Greico-Roman god, such as Bachus. Now all you need is a toga.”

“Or my own winepress to make wine,” said Renee.

“Why do you need your own winepress? We can make our own wine here.” She took a clump of grapes and squeezed them over his head, the juice running down his back.

“You have some nerve. Two can play at that game.”

“No, no, stop!” she laughed as he grabbed her by the arm to shove some grapes onto her face, only for her to slip out of his arm.

He felt alive as he chased after her. He followed her laughter and the sounds of her footsteps. Turning a corner, he nearly crashed into her. Jovanna didn’t have time to get away before he slipped a cluster of crushed grapes down her back. She turned around and reciprocated by tossing grapes at him. But he pounced on her, and the two of them rolled through the grapevines, laughing merrily. They laughed for a long time, until Renee found his stomach hurting from it.

Tired, they retired to a brook amongst a grove of trees, to have their share of water. Renee had a heart of thankfulness. If this was happiness, he wanted to live this way every day. He was thirsty for it. Such contentment continued as Jovanna encouraged him to listen to the birds within the trees, and to catch frogs with her in a nearby pond. Renee noticed that beautiful Mediterranean wildflowers were in a rainbow of bloom. Jovanna remarked how lovely they were as she began to weave herself a new crown of flowers. Her new floral crown further accentuated the beauty of her colorful soul.

“How do you feel?” asked Jovanna, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“I feel inspired,” he said. “I have to paint people again! I want to use this location as a setting. I can quickly get my easel and paints from the studio. We’re not far away. I can be back in thirty minutes.”

“I’ll go with you,” she said.

“No. You can wait here.”

“I can,” she nodded thoughtfully. “But I don’t want to.”

Finding there was no use in arguing with her, he let her assist him in bringing his supplies, though he was adamant about carrying the heavier items himself.

When they were back amongst the grove towering over the wildflowers, Jovanna asked him, “So, what do you want to paint?”

“Well, I’m worried you might think me awfully audacious if I asked,” he said nervously.

“I think I know what you’re going to ask,” she smiled at him gently. “You want to paint a picture of me. Am I right?”

“Yes, that’s right. Jovanna, you are beautiful, inside and out. I haven’t felt so inspired in such a long time. I love to paint what is beautiful, and what’s beautiful right now to me is you.”

“But of course,” the Italian woman laughed. “I would love to pose for you.”

“You would?”

“But of course! What would you like me to wear?”

The artist found himself blushing, embarrassed to state what was in his heart for fear she’d think he was a man of ill intent.

“Did you want me to pose nude?” she chuckled.

“Well, yes,” said Renee rather timidly. Then he felt a surge of energy rise within him. “But I’m not sorry to ask. You’re a goddess in many ways, an Aphrodite, and clothing can only hide your beauty, not magnify it. I want to put on canvas, every one of your curves, every tone of your flesh. I want to paint out from your flowing black hair and deep brown eyes, to the curves of your hips, all the way down to the elegant shape of your feet.”

“A simple yes would have sufficed,” said Jovanna, as she started to remove her stockings, followed by her dress, crinoline, and her petticoat.

Tossing her clothing aside, she stood naked before the artist, except for the new wreath of flowers in her hair. For a moment, Renee lost his breath. He felt a profound sense of reverence towards this woman. There was divinity within her, as though God himself had created the ultimate form of art. Within her was a fire that birthed creativity. The sun shone through the break in the trees, illuminating her hair like polished ebony. Her light, olive skin gave off a glow. She was a living sculpture that would have put Rodin’s best work, if living and breathing, to envy. But it was her smile that was the most beautiful, for in it was light, love, and hope. Was she even human? Or was she something more, such as an angel from God himself?

“So, do tell. How should I pose?” she awakened him out of his near worship.

“Well, I” Renee, stuttered before concluding with, “I bestow the choice to you.”

Jovanna chose a sycamore tree among the grove. Many trees were clustered in shadows around the sycamore, but she stood in a soft beam of light from where the branches were scarce, as though she were an angel who had descended from heaven. Standing bare upon the carpet of wild-flowers, she was elegant and powerful. She arched slightly back against the tree, putting her right leg a couple of inches in front of the left and arched it so her heel was pointing upwards and her sole was flat on the ground. Her arms hung at her side, slightly crossing her them behind her back. Her head was partly facing towards the left side, her chin tilted up a little bit, and she wore a look of serenity on her face that accompanied the wreath of flowers on her head perfectly.

Renee felt that creative fire rekindled in him as he dipped his brush into his pallet and manipulated the colors upon his canvas. He knew that he couldn’t put her actual flesh and her actual soul upon the board, but he could give the illusion of it. No. That wasn’t completely true. He had felt for a long time that an artist at least shared a mirror image of someone’s soul. In this case, the viewer of the work would catch a glimpse into his soul and into the soul of Jovanna. To share such, he painted for hours, capturing each of her skin tones, the curves of her body, and the flowers wreathed around her hair. He painted with delicacy and with love, for that is what she was made from. He even painted the landscape around her with that same care. It came to point in which it was hard to differentiate between her and the grove as they molded into each other.

Upon finishing his painting, he felt more exhausted than he had in a long time. Yet he also felt a sense of elevation of his spirit. Gazing upon his painting, Renee knew that it was easily one of his best. The attention to detail of the work was exquisite. He had managed to capture each little subtly and nuance of the model and of the landscape around her.

“Jovanna, come and take a look!” he beckoned to her excitedly.

Without even bothering to get dressed, Jovanna jogged over to take a look at the completed piece. Renee saw approval glisten in her eyes as she smiled. She placed a hand gently on his shoulder. “I knew you could do it,” she said.

“I couldn’t,” he protested. “Not without you. It wasn’t just I who did it. But the both of us. We equally put our hearts and souls into it. And I know that there is more art that we can create. I don’t want to create it alone, but with you by my side.”

“I cannot,” she told him sadly, “as much as I’d love to.”

“But why?” he protested. “Is it something I did?”

“It’s nothing you did,” Jovanna said, as she walked over to her clothing and began to get dressed. “It’s what has been accomplished. My sole purpose was to help you gain your inspiration again, and now you have it,” she said as she put on her petticoat. “There are others who need my help.”

“But I need you,” he protested. “Everyone else is so ugly.”

“You will always have a part of me,” she said as she pulled her stockings up. “And you’ll find other beautiful people who look just as good as I do.”

“It’s not that! As I painted you, I could feel the love and warmth that burns within you, radiating out from your heart. You are kind. You are fun. You are gentle. You inspire me.”

“Many things inspired you before you turned your passion into a profession,” she pointed out while she put her crinoline around her waist. After putting her dress back on, she looked at the artist with imploring eyes. “Don’t ever let your profession overrule your passion.”

“But you are my passion!” he shouted.

She walked back over to him and took his hands in hers. “Your art is your passion,” she said. “Your ability to create. You said God gave you a talent. I believe that’s true. God drew me to you to rekindle that talent. He wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t help others in need.”

“But I don’t want to say goodbye,” said the artist, feeling like he was going to break down.

“We don’t have to say goodbye, yet.” She hugged him close to her.

He felt her warmth, and the dress she wore even felt like a rose. Only now he also felt the thorns from a relationship that he had previously thought was the beginning of something heavenly. He had thought it would turn into a relationship that transcended above the troubles of the earthly realm. He was wrong. He held onto her tighter. He didn’t want to let go. For a moment she held onto him tightly as well.

Finally, Jovanna letting go and taking him by the hand said, “Can you please escort me to the station?”

Renee nodded, knowing that there wasn’t anything more that he could say.

The sun was setting as he walked with her, hand in hand, to the train station. It was strange about how the day was simultaneously at its saddest and most stunning during sunset. It was a poetic reminder of life, about how one is given blessings that one must appreciate before such blessings are lost.

“I am happy,” said Jovanna quietly, although there was a tinge of sorrow to her voice.

Renee stared at her in contemplation.

“I’m happy,” she continued, “that I get to enjoy the rest of this evening with you. I could ask for no greater joy.”

“And I as well,” nodded the artist, though his pain felt immense.

Renee felt another one of his heartstrings break when they came to the train station. “You know, I’m willing to board the train with you,” he said.

“I do know,” she nodded plaintively. “But it’s not to be. Trust me when I tell you as much.” Suddenly, Renee found himself again tight within her arms as she hugged him farewell. Then he was given a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for all that you’ve done. Thank you for letting me inspire you. Now go and be happy again. Pursue what gives you joy. Arrivederci.”

With these farewells given, Renee watched her train leave the station.

“Monsieur Roux,” came a voice behind him.

Renee turned around to find that he was looking at the servant of the duke he was commissioned to paint.

“Monsieur Roux, whatever are you doing at the train station? Only watching the trains leave, I presume?”

“No. I was seeing off an old friend.”

“I beg your pardon,” the servant scratched his head, puzzled. “But I have been watching your strange manners since before the last train left, and I noticed no one.”

“You had to have noticed her!” said the temperamental artist. “She was a beautiful Italian woman, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek before she left.

“Monsieur, I fear you may be hallucinating, for I saw no such person. Regardless, my master, Monsieur Michel is most excited about the painting he has commissioned of you. I trust you will grace us with your presence soon.”

“Yes, of course,” sighed Renee, absolutely emotionally worn out. “Next week, next Tuesday.”

“Very good, Monsieur Roux. Monsieur Michel looks forward to seeing you again. Until then, I take my leave. Au revoir!”

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_Lost_Pleiad_(1884)

Painting by William Adolph Bouguerau.  L’Etoile Perdue. Public Domain of the United States. Wikimedia Commons  

The painting of the duke was the last commissioned painting that Renee Roux ever did. From then on he worked at the old chateau and vineyards he had purchased in remembrance of the short time he had with Jovanna. That’s not to say he gave up painting. On his spare time he still painted every week, but this time out of joy and pleasure, and not out of work. He had made a few inquiries with friends in Naples to find out about an Acquarone family, but they couldn’t find any rich family with that name. Nor had anyone else heard of a Jovanna Acquarone. Her light had disappeared into the sunset that evening. The only thing he had to remember her by was the painting that he had done of her which he always kept close by in his studio.

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The Muse Part 1

H._A._Brendekilde_-_A_wooded_path_in_autumn_(1902)

A Wooded Path in Autumn by H.A. Brendekilde.

 

Jean Francois was at a loss for words, literally. The poet renowned all throughout France had been composing poems since he was six-years old. His poems weren’t just stanzas or lines of words, but verbal pictures enlivening the senses. Born a prodigy, he had a gift for weaving words together into a beautiful sunset or of a terror waiting in the dungeons of Paris. He could capture the tender feelings of a mother for her child or the fear of a soldier upon the battlefields. His pen was both an angelic finger touching the hearts of all his readers, and a cold draft of wind causing them discomfort. It had seemed like the master poet’s mind would always be a fountain of ideas, gushing ink out of his indefatigable pen, raining words onto paper. But such was not the case.

It had been five years in which Jean had been unable to tap in into the fountain of creativity. Through these years he grew despondent, but tried to live the best he could within the city of Paris. He had enough money live off of from sales of his past work. But it wasn’t about the money. Certainly he was grateful that he had enough to live off of, but what was the point on continuing to live if he couldn’t continue on with his passion? Food, drink, and shelter could sustain his physical health, but only his poetry could sustain the cravings of his soul. He had been starving creatively for so long now.

Then, she arrived.

She arrived when he was taking a stroll in the park. The poet saw her. She was wearing a yellow bonnet, brighter than a summer day, and a dress, green like a field in spring. Despite the colors of the clothing, they weren’t the fanciest clothes. Yet she carried herself with such confidence that would befit a queen. Jean was perplexed that no one else noticed the beauty that had sprung among them, everyone preoccupied in their own daily tasks.

Then he noticed that she was making her way towards him and he grew nervous. With eyes fixed on him, like an arrow that had found it’s mark, he wondered if she was coming to berate him for staring. He thought of some way he could apologize to her, but he had nothing to say. It was ironic. The famed poet was an exceptional genius when it came to expressing himself in poetry, but when it came to everyday speech and communication, he was clueless.

“Are you Jean Francois?” the woman asked him.

“Yes,” the poet said. “How did you know?”

“I know because my intuition tells me that you need inspiration,” she said. “Besides, I am in love with your prose, Jean Francois. The way the words flow across the page, the way the prose touches my heart. For instance” she said quoting one of his best loved poems….

In a cell of my own making, your flowers bloom

               Changing hell into paradise, as it ushers out the gloom.

               Though I was confined to darkness dead

               You are the sun, in which from your light I’m fed.

               For not all of God’s angels have wings

               Of his whole heavenly choir that sings

               But they are still angels, unlocking the cell with a key

               Allowing your heart to fly free.

 

“Why would you love that one?” asked Jean. “It’s not even one of my bests. Also, what do you mean I called out to you? Who are you?”

“It’s not for any artist to make a judgement which one of their works is the best,” said the woman. “That’s up to each and every individual who is in love with their craft. As for who I am, my name is Aednat. Now, tell me, does your soul not grow weary in the city?”

“I think so,” said Jean, embarrassed of giving such a simplistic answer. Of course he was bored of Paris! And normally he’d write down his feelings upon paper so eloquently, if not for the writer’s block. He was tired of the sounds of the clattering of horse hooves and carriages upon the cobblestone roads, of crowds walking down the streets like cattle, and of the public drunkenness and belligerence.

Yet she had asked a good question, although she didn’t state it asking him why he hadn’t communed with nature for the last eight years. The truth was he didn’t know. Maybe, even though he was uncomfortable in the city, he had still grown too accustomed to the comforts it offered with the fine wine, the rich food, the theater, and the concerts. Still, looking into his heart, he knew that he certainly did miss the beautiful countryside, its woods and creeks.

“Has it occurred to you,” continued Aednat, “that the reason you have lost your inspiration is because of the city?”

“I didn’t think,” –

“Say no more, Jean. What you need is a holiday in the countryside.”

“I’m not disposed to at the moment,” Jean said nervously.

“What important appointments do you have in your current life?”

Jean had nothing to say. He had nothing of paramount importance in his life. It’s just that he was never good talking to people, particularly women. The fact that she was a beautiful woman, not just physically, but personally, made him all the more uncomfortable. He feared he might say something stupid.

“I would rather go to the countryside by myself,” he ventured timidly.

“Nonsense,” said Aednat, taking him by the hand. “I, along with millions of others, have fallen under the spell of your beautiful poetry. Surely the most gifted Monsieur Francois can find it in his heart to socialize with the common folk.”

“But that’s the problem,” said Jean. “You’re not common.”

“Oh, then it shouldn’t be a difficulty for you to join me,” she laughed while pulling him along.

Before Jean knew it, he was on a carriage leaving Paris with Aednat. For the first part of the journey he could only look at his feet. But she gradually helped him out of his shell. She had a picnic basket full of sandwiches and grapes, as well as a bottle of champagne to share and a couple glasses to pour it in.

It was hard to tell whether it was the gregarious nature of Aednat or the champagne that put Jean at ease, but eventually the poet was laughing and talking more freely. “I am unsure as to what made me write poetry in the first place,” he said. “But perhaps it helps me connect more with reality.”

“I think most would say the same about their art,” agreed Aednat, who had sat across from him prior was now sitting right by him.

“Come to think of it,” continued Jean with a hiccup, “I’m not sure why I haven’t gone to the woods in such a long time. When I was a boy, I lived out in the countryside with my father, a hardworking farmer. My mother had passed away when I was eight-years old, and my father always resented me for having lived and her for having died. He never liked children much. Sometimes he would hit me or yell at me for his misfortune. But my mother, oh she was different. Before she died, she gave me a special notebook that she had saved up for with her money. See, I wrote my first poem when I was six, and everyone said it was the work of a prodigy. So she encouraged, no, she made me promise to keep up with my writing. After her death, I kept away from my belligerent father as much as possible, finding solitude in the woods by the creek as I wrote down my poetry.”

“It sounds like you had difficult life,” said Aednat, giving his hand a squeeze.

“Difficult is right,” sighed Jean. “I was sport of by the other children. Perhaps it was jealousy or maybe they just thought I was strange since I wasn’t like them. Either way, I didn’t have a beautiful life with my father who thought poetry was a waste of time, and I certainly didn’t have anyone my age as friends who loved nature. Nature was my temple, my solitude.”

“Why then did you ever choose to live in Paris?” asked Aednat.

“My editor and my publishing firm asked me to,” shrugged the poet. “They were tired of the long waits when it came to mailing my manuscripts. In time though, I grew to love aspects of city life, such as good food, performing arts, and galleries. But now that I think about it, my soul has missed the gentle company of the woods.”

“And I think the woods will do more for you than you can imagine,” acknowledged Aednat.

“Now, tell me, I beg of you, where are you from?” asked Jean. “You don’t have a French accent in the least. Your accent sounds Irish.”

“This is true,” affirmed Aednat. She took off her bonnet. Bright red hair cascaded down her shoulders, like a waterfall in the sunset. And for the first time, since she removed her bonnet, Jean noticed that there were freckles upon her cheeks. He wasn’t sure why hadn’t noticed them before. Perhaps the shadows had covered them. “I’m from Dublin, Ireland,” she said.

“And what brings you to France?”

“France is a land of writers, artists, musicians, actors, and overall dreamers. In truth, I don’t think I chose France, but France chose me to be a muse. I lived in what many would call poverty, but I was never poor. Like you, I had nature to commune with. But unlike you, I had a loving family my whole life who always supported me. I am terribly sorry about the loss of your mother and the abuse from your father.”

“I let is sleep in the past unless I’m asked. It’s not a big deal, Aednat. I am curious as to how you made it to France.”

“It wasn’t easy, my dear Jean. But a wife of one of the farmers nearby was French, and she taught me how to speak the language. It’s how I discovered your poetry, which opened up a whole new world for me, in which I saw greater beauty in life. I said to myself that if France could produce someone of such a stellar spirit, I had to go meet him for myself.”

“I’m touched,” Jean was at a loss for words.

“So I saved every penny to make it here,” she said proudly. “Eventually I was able to take a ship to France, and I have since fallen in love with it, just as much as I have fallen in love with your poetry.

For the rest of the trip, Jean became so at ease with this gregarious Irish woman that it didn’t seem long until the carriage reached its destination. Upon disembarking, Jean paid the coachman some francs, and Aednat fed the horses some carrots she had in the basket.

After the coachman gave his word that he would wait, the two of them headed into the groves of trees. Jean was unprepared for the overwhelming wave of nostalgia that overcame him, reminding him of simpler times when the woods were his true friends, before he was beguiled by the false charms of the city. As he pondered over the matter, Aednat ran out and spun herself in circles around the trees. Jean watched her fall into the orange and yellow leaves as she took a deep breath of the fresh autumn air. Following suit, he also drank down the air, finding it to smell more intoxicating than a freshly opened bottle of fine wine. Drunk off the aroma of the crisp autumn season, he followed her lead and crashed into the leaves right by her.

“Do you smell that that sweet smell?” asked Aednat.

“Yes, indeed I do,” said Jean. “For it’s not just the smell of the autumn woods, but of my childhood. Sometimes I wish I could have had other children to share it with.”

“Then let’s be children again,” she took him by the hand, and pulled him up. “Just for the day.”

For the next three hours, Jean was climbing trees with her. Atop, he saw a stunning panorama of gold and red in all directions. He walked with her, barefoot, in creeks of water, in which she would sometimes giggle as she splashed cold water on him. In turn, he would splash cold water back at her.

When they were tired of climbing trees and walking through the woods, the two of them laid side by side under the trees as evening approached. The setting sun transmuted the leaves of yellow into glowing molten gold like an alchemic formula. The setting sun turned the leaves of red and orange into a brilliant blaze without a fire. Yet the air around them was fresh and growing cold. Aednat cuddled close to Jean, providing him warmth.

“Is this not better for your soul than the city?” she asked softly.

“It is,” agreed the poet. “I feel invigorated.”

Aednat nodded, and then stood up and stretched. Jean watched her walk towards a grove of trees as a rush of wind caused the bright, red strands of her hair to flutter in unison with the red leaves that were flying about her like beautiful butterflies. Her yellow dress was accentuated by the red and yellow sky.

“Can one truly get any closer to Heaven than this?” she asked. “Come join me, Jean!”

Once Jean walked over, Aednat took him by the hand. He gulped, feeling his heart beat rapidly.

“Now, with our hands together, let’s lift them up in the air,” she said.

“Just the hands we are holding?”

“No our other hands, too. We’re going close our eyes and pretend, while the wind blows against us, that we are birds flying together over the hills.”

Jean closed his eyes, and as the wind blew against him, he saw a vison of them flying over the hills. In his mind, they were passing over farmlands, chateaus, old castles, and mountains. The two of them were birds with nothing to keep them attached to the ground, free to soar wherever they wished.

Jean was surprised to find himself briefly lifted off his feet by Aednat, and then twirled by her, before she clasped one hand on his shoulder and another in his hand.

“I’m so happy I could just dance,” she said. “Don’t you feel similar?”

“I’ve never danced before.”

“Then I’d be happy to teach you. Put your right hand on my back.”

When the poet stalled, she moved his right hand to her lower back.

“Now, just follow my lead,” she said.

He did so but not without feeling awkward about it. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“You’re doing magnificent,” she encouraged him.

Magnificent? He doubted it! She was leading him in a waltz, and he was tripping over his own feet. Once he even fell down, taking her with him. When he tried to apologize, she only laughed heartily. Her laugh was a sweet, caring voice, echoing with joy, like a fairy creature throughout the woods. She even had the audacity to pull him back to his feet again and urge him to continue on.

As the dance progressed, he found that he was indeed getting better.

“Aednat, I’m” – he started before she cut him off.

“Don’t say anything,” she whispered. “Just pay attention to the surroundings.”

Jean took her advice as they continued to waltz. Leaves floated down, like pages of gold, from the trees around them that rose up tall, like pillars within a ballroom. Except, the woods were more elegant than any ballroom. The woods were where nature did its dance of life.

Feeling more confident, Jean dipped Aednat downwards. In turn, Aednet lifted one of her legs in the air and tilted her head back. Her bright red hair swept across the carpet of gold and fire. For a brief moment, he looked into her eyes to find that they mirrored a galaxy full of endless possibilities. Who was this woman?

The dance continued until the moon cast its glow upon the forest. It was then that Aednat ended the dance by kissing Jean upon the forehead. “You dance divinely,” she said.

On the way back in the carriage, Jean was in awe over the events of the day. Emotions, profound and powerful, were welling up inside of him.

“Aednat, when will I see you again?”

“You will see me every fall amongst the trees. You will see me in your poetry.  But you won’t see me again like this,” she told him, not unkindly.

“Why ever not?” he asked in shock. “Did I do something to dishonor you?”

“No, nothing of the sort. I have had a lovely time with you. But there are others who are in need of a muse, and I must be a muse to them as well. I have accomplished what I set out to do. I have awakened your soul. Now, it’s time for you to write poetry again.”

“But I can’t write it without you,” he protested.

“You have written it without me for years because of all of the different facets of life that inspired you. I was only one inspiration out of many. Now I must go and re-inspire other artists.”

The poet looked down, broken-hearted, unable to look at Aednat. She took a seat by him and gently held him in her arms.

“Be not full of sorrow,” she said, her voice as gentle as her touch. “Don’t you see? Not only are you able to write again, but I have coaxed you out of your shell. There are many wonderful woman out there who will be blessed to meet you. Stop withdrawing yourself. You will continue to bless people with your poetry, but now also with your company. Would you refuse me the right to awaken or reawaken the art within others as I have for you?”

“No, of course not,” said Jean. “That would be selfish.”

She clutched his hand. “You are amazing, Jean. I enjoyed our time together. Good things will happen to you. And truth be told, I will miss you, just as you’ll miss me. I will always love you, but I must go.” And with these words she kissed him on the cheek.

Back at his Parisian apartment, Jean toiled on a new poem. By lantern light, he poured out all the tender feelings and passions from his heart on paper, forming verses that bespoke of the enchantment of dancing with a fairy princess among the golden leaves, under trees of marble against the setting sun. He concluded it with the pain of such a moment slipping out of his life. It was the most powerful poem he had ever written. It burned painfully on paper just as it burned in his heart.

The next morning, Jean submitted his poem for publication. His readers were ecstatic to see another poem from Jean Francois after five years of silence. But upon reading his latest work, they were overwhelmed with feelings of both happiness and melancholy. For the poet’s words awoke in their hearts memories of joy and loss.

Jean Francois was never without ideas from then on.

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